Anyone familiar with Greece’s modern history will know that Yiannis Ritsos and Mikis Theodorakis are two figures whose legacy shaped the country’s identity.
To situate these legacies merely in the spaces of poetry and music would be at best an omission, considering their activism became embedded to their creations which mirror Greece’s turbulent and often divided past. But above all, their work has been one epitomising the human struggle for freedom and justice, a call for unity amongst people which just like their art knows no borders.
Next month, an initiative spearheaded by the Greek Festival of Sydney, brings Australian audiences a series of special performances honouring the output of these masterminds.
Touring five cities, Romiosini And Beyond is a two-part concert comprising the music of Romiosini, a cycle of songs Mikis Theodorakis composed based on the poetry of Yiannis Ritsos, and a tribute to the great composer’s oeuvre of popular music.
But the introductions don’t end here. The musical event brings together an ensemble of industry heavyweights, including Australia’s best orchestral musicians, Greece’s beloved vocalist Dimitris Basis and acclaimed conductor George Ellis, who will lead a five piece Greek band, a 40-piece orchestra and a 20-piece Greek choir.
Notably, the Australian tour features a world-first.
“Romiosini was originally written for popular Greek band instruments and voice.
“To our knowledge, nowhere in the world has it [Romiosini] been performed with a full orchestra, so Melbourne will see the world’s premiere of the fully orchestrated version”, George Ellis tells Neos Kosmos, ahead of the Melbourne Recital Centre concert on Friday 17 May.
The first and last concert of the tour will take place in Perth (10 May) and Darwin (1 June) respectively, albeit using a chamber version of the orchestra, while Brisbane’s Concert Hall will host the performance also in full orchestral form on Wednesday 22 May, followed by Sydney’s City Recital Hall on Friday 24 May as part of the Greek Festival of Sydney.
FULFILLING THEODORAKIS’ WISH
While the tour was made possible thanks to support by Greek communities across Australia, it was Sydney that kickstarted the project, responding to a personal request by Theodorakis.
“Two years ago, a delegation from the Greek Festival and Greek community of Sydney visited Mikis Theodorakis at his home in Athens.
“They told him they wanted to present a concert honouring him and asked him to choose the specific work he would like to see performed and the vocalist. ‘We feel we owe this to you’ they said[…]This is how we came to Romiosini being presented for the first time scored for full symphony orchestra following Mikis’ request and he asked for me to be the soloist – something I consider a great honour and for which I deeply thank him,” explains Basis.
For the singer, his year-long collaboration with the composer dating back to 1999 marks, as he puts it, “the biggest chapter” in his career, having performed his works repeatedly both in Greece and abroad and being part of the “Mikis Theodorakis Popular Orchestra”.
Present at that meeting was also George Ellis with good reason, being the conductor in charge of the orchestral concerts for the Festival since 2014 – including Theodorakis’ works Axion Esti and Canto General, with Basis as vocalist in the latter.
“We’ve gone back to this man with whom we have a great relationship. It’s like being friends with Mozart, Beethoven or Picasso, that’s how we feel about Mikis Theodorakis,” says Ellis.
BINDING THE CLASSIC WITH THE POPULAR
“What we wanted to do is just celebrate the great composer himself… and honour his beautiful body of work,” the conductor goes on referring to the two parts of the performance: Romiosini, consisting of nine pieces based on the poetry which Theodorakis set to music, followed by a selection of the maestro’s ever popular songs.
Romiosini was written by Ritsos just after WWII in the midst of Greece’s civil war, describing at a first level the hard-fought struggles of its people for freedom. But its lyrics are also an ode to Greekness and a call for unity and solidarity, something that Basis explains is reflected throughout the work of Theodorakis.
“Theodorakis is the composer who has set to music the poetry of the country’s greatest[…]It is also known that through his music, the message he wanted to get accross has always been one of reconciliation amongst Greeks following the WWII at the onset of the civil war. Take for instance The dead brother’s song, Axion Esti and Romiosini are all works of deep meaning conveying the message that Greeks should be united, not divided.”
Equally profound, Ellis points out, yet of a more “hand-clapping” feeling is the second part of the concert, where we will hear beloved songs like Varka ston Gialo, Vrehi sti ftohogitonia and Drapetsona.
“When we do a song like Margarita Margaro or Vraho Vraho Ton Kaimo Mou, we find that the audience[…] can’t help but clap along to the beat.
“It’s very different from the first half and a wonderful thing to see this contrast in the two-part presentation.”
And as Basis ads “It is important to showcase the other side of Mikis Theodorakis too. He is not only the composer who was done orchestral works and used poetry, but has an array of popular and love songs, songs with concepts that have remained relevant today and portraying everyday Greece in the 50s and 60s. Who would not be touched by these songs that have nurtured so many generations?”
A SNEAK PEAK LOOK INTO A MULTILAYERED EVENT
In the second part of the performance, the orchestra and soloist will be joined by a band led by Sydney-based musician George Doukas featuring Greek instruments and including…- yes, you guessed right – the popular bouzouki, while concertmaster, or in other words Ellis’ right hand person, will be world class violinist Dimitris Kalligeros.
Asked about the challenges of preparing such a big undertaking, Basis and Ellis debunk the myth of a puzzling experience.
Things are much simpler than one would imagine, says the Greek singer, thanks to his familiarity with Mikis Theodorakis’ music and having worked on Romiosini in the past.
“Furthermore, George Ellis and I have developed a really good collaboration for the past three years [via the Greek Festival of Sydney]. He is a great musician and maestro, we’ve been preparing for a year now…and music really is essentially notes”.
“Basis has been a key collaborator,” says Ellis.
“We consulted with him in order to choose together which pieces we would do for the second part[…] Initially George Doukas, Basis and I had a conference call talking about which repertoire we wanted to do and after various emails – the whole process took at least 2-3 weeks – we came up with a full list of the programme.”
A year after, with a few weeks left for the tour everything is at its final stage, with musicians in the various states where concerts will take place receiving the final orchestral parts before all artists get together to rehearse before the big day.
“Yes, it does take a lot of coordination and musical forces on performance day, ” Ellis admits. “It can be tricky and sometimes things can go wrong but we cope, and I’ve got great people working with me for this concert.”
If anything, Ellis is used to big performances, having amongst others conducted for the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 and served as musical director and conductor for the Athens Olympics.
So is Basis, having for years now established not only a successful career in Greece, but also his place as an international vocalist.
In fact, this will be his sixth time performing Down Under.
“Based on my experience, I can say that the Australian audience is exceptionally enthusiastic and I personally feel moved by it. Perhaps owing to the big distance from the homeland, the fact that some have not visited Greece for years what I’ve witnessed happening every time I perform here and expect to be the same with Romiosini And Beyond is an open communication during the concert.”
He further reflects on how younger generations of Greek Australians have been learning about and enjoying aspects of our cultural heritage thanks to efforts championed by the Greek Festivals and communities broadly.
“This is why I want to express my gratitude towards the Greek communities around Australia starting from Sydney and the Greek Festival who took the initiative in approaching Mikis[….]It started so organically and here we are ahead of a tour covering five cities.”
It is fair to say that those attending Romiosini And Beyond will not only join a celebration of one of Greece’s greatest composers. Importantly, the audience is invited to take a trip down Greek memory lane and revisit the parts of our identity we should be embracing.
“This concert speaks to the soul of every Greek person at present time when things are difficult for the homeland.
“These songs written as far as 50 and 60 years ago have remained relevant because the message they reflect is one of unity. Greeks have achieved great things whenever they’ve stayed united. And this is something worth remembering.”
Delphi Bank proudly supports the Australian tour of Romiosini And Beyond as the principal sponsor.