The strings of life

Renowned violinist and conductor Spiros Rantos started his career on the initiative of his parents and his uncle, a famous Greek cellist, what followed was an international career

The chosen ones had the honour and pleasure to perform under the expert baton of two of the biggest composers Greece has seen: Manos Hatzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis. But being the mascot of the orchestra they conducted, as its youngest instrumentalist, and being good enough, at the age of only 14, to be conducted by the legends of Greek music was the privilege of Spiros Rantos, Greek Australian violinist and conductor.

Born in Corfu and raised in Athens, for Spiros Rantos music was a family matter. His uncle, Sotiris Tahiatis, was a household name of the Greek classical scene, many years as the leading cellist of the National Symphony Orchestra, the National Opera and Radio Orchestra. From the age of five, violin was a part of Spiros’ everyday life – at the beginning unwillingly, he admits. The family obsession with music, he explains, began with his Corfu heritage, its rich culture and musical tradition. In his native Ionian island, Spiros says, almost everyone played an instrument.

“The decision was with my parents and uncle Sotos. When I started at age five I really didn’t have much say, but by the time I was fifteen I started performing in my teachers’ orchestra in Athens, and having many ‘professional’ engagements,” Spiros tells Neos Kosmos.

It was the experience with the legends of Greek and European music, Hatzidakis and Theodorakis, Spiros says, that later led the Athens orchestra to participate in music recordings of the two famous composers. According to many the most prolific composition ever by Mikis Theodorakis, Axion Esti was recorded for the first time in 1964. Written for classical and popular orchestras and male soloists, recitant and choir, Axion Esti was recorded with Grigoris Bithikotsis and Manos Katrakis. In the historical recording, young Spiros Rantos played violin, following in the footsteps of his uncle who was the cellist of most of Hatzidakis’ and Theodorakis’ original recordings.

No wonder that with a 50 year plus career behind him, the 68-year-old Spiros Rantos is today credited as founder, director, conductor of numerous Australian chamber and other orchestras, with an international reputation for his brilliant violin playing and conducting.

At the age of only eighteen, Spiros Rantos held the position of first violinist at the Opera in Linz, Austria. In Vienna, he completed the academy and specialised in original baroque instruments. Until 1976, when he left Vienna for Australia, he had over 60 LP records behind him.

As a member of the Vienna based chamber music group Ensemble I, which was based on the idea to perform with different instrumental combinations in every concert, Spiros came to Australia in 1976. Alongside him was Israeli-born pianist Brachi Tiles, first his professional chamber music partner and soon after a life companion. Invited originally for six months as artists in residence at the Victorian College of Arts, they decided to stay permanently.
“It was a bit difficult as I had already built a steady career in Austria and Europe, but also it was quite appealing to do something new, in a new environment,” he tells.

Soon after, from Melbourne Brachi and Spiros moved to Toowoomba, to start the musical department at Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education, today the University of South Queensland, where they stayed for the next eight years.

In 1979, Spiros founded the Rantos Collegium, that would become an integral part of cultural life in Victoria until 1996, participating in many major festivals, touring country centres with the Victorian State Opera and presenting its own series. Many years later Paul Coppens, who owned the business name of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, became impressed with Spiros Rantos’ solos at the Russian Ballet dancer Nureyev’s performances and offered him use of the title.
“We operated with this title from somewhere around the early nineties. In 1995 the orchestra stopped operations as the Kenneth government cut down the arts budget and we didn’t have any money to put on concerts. At the same time I was offered a senior lectureship at the university of Queensland which I took up in 1996 and I’ve stayed in Brisbane since then.”

When Mikis Theodorakis visited Australia last time in 1995, as a 70- year-old, he toured the country conducting Spiros’ Rantos Collegium.
“Soon after it was founded, the Rantos Collegium emerged as one of the main chamber orchestras in Melbourne, like the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) now. International touring took us to many countries.

“The background of music was very different, to be able to compare Australian and European music. I can say that Australian music was then like Greek classical music – there were a lot of people with wonderful ideas and many wonderful musicians, but because of the nature of the country they were a little bit doomed to a local presentation and didn’t come enough to international attention. With Collegium, we were the first orchestra for many years to go out of Australia, for international touring. Now, with the emergence of ACO, an internationally renowned orchestra, the setting has changed,” Spiros says.
Since 1976 till today, Spiros Rantos says there has been a kind of ‘explosion’ in performances in Australia, that Rantos Collegium was part of.
“When we came, composers wrote European style music, with a strong European flavour. Now naturally, with people trying to create more local identity and culture, we have many examples of young composers creating music with an Australian flavour.
“We played to a lot of young people and got their attention. Most of them who are in the field today were part of the Collegium in the ’80s, until ’95, when the funding was cut.”
Melbourne Youth Orchestra, MCAE Symphony orchestra, the Chamber Strings of Melbourne orchestra, Brisbane Chamber Orchestra, the Toowoomba Concert Orchestra – are just few of many Spiros Rantos was involved with, while teaching at the Victorian College of the Arts, the University of Southern Queensland and University of Melbourne.

Today, many of Spiros’ students are recognised teachers in schools around Australia, while others have pursued performing careers around the world, or with leading Australian orchestras.

Now retired from the full time job, Spiros and Brachi keep active performing as a duo. Their playing is often described as combining Viennese finesse with Mediterranean temperament. Together they have extensively recorded duo repertoires ranging from the classics to contemporary.
In 2014, Spiros says amongst their engagements are the river boat concert cruise in Myanmar in November, a festival in Samoa in October, a 4MBS Mediterranean concert cruise in June and more orchestral conducting.

In 2015, if everything goes according to plan, he wants to perform Mikis Theodorakis’ work around Australia with his orchestra, as a tribute to the Greek songwriter and composer on the occasion of his 90th birthday.