Theodorakis writes the music of history

May 08, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

New York -- New York's foreign-born cabdrivers are not easy to impress. But this Spartan-born Greek became almost speechless when he heard that the fare he had picked up outside a midtown hotel had just spent an hour with Mikis Theodorakis.

"You saw Mikis?" he said. "You spoke with Mikis?" His tone was as if the fare had just descended from an audience with the Delphic oracle. "Mikis," he said with concern, "how did he look?"

Mikis Theodorakis is best known to Americans as the composer who wrote the music for such movies as "Zorba the Greek," "Z" and "State of Siege." Those ethnically seasoned scores, with their employment of popular Greek instruments such as the bouzouki and use of Byzantine and Cretan folk music, have given millions of non-Greeks their musical image of Greece.

But to the Greek people themselves -- at least most of them -- Theodorakis is a colossus who represents the birthplace of democracy itself. His various imprisonments and the torture he endured while in jail there -- first by the German occupiers during World War II and later by right-wing dictatorships -- stood for the travails of Greece itself.

"Fifteen beautiful years," Theodorakis says when asked how many years in all that he was in prison. "But I don't know about the future," he adds with a smile.

Nevertheless, the answer to the cabbie's question is that Theodorakis looks great. He's a huge man -- well over six feet tall, with enormous shoulders and a barrel chest -- with a still-youthful face and an undiminished shock of unruly, steel-gray hair that belie his 69 years.

If he's become a symbol of Greece, that's because he has never stopped thinking about her. He grew up on the island of Chios in the midst of olive and orange groves overlooking the sea.

"I remember that there was a boat that used to sail past twice a week," Theodorakis says. "The impression that white boat on the blue sea left on me is like a wound, the scar left by a moment of exhilaration. In everything I have composed, I have tried to re-create that beauty and rediscover that image engraved in my memory."

Theodorakis is in this country leading a monthlong tour of a Greek orchestra and chorus that will perform several of his most important works.

Different last time

The tour, which visits Meyerhoff Hall Tuesday evening and is being paid for by the Greek government, is a far cry from an earlier Theodorakis visit to the United States in 1971. International protests had just forced Theodorakis' release from prison (he had been imprisoned since 1967, when a right-wing junta imposed a dictatorship in a coup) and, though he remained technically under house arrest for most of the junta's remaining three years in power, he was allowed to accept an invitation from the United Nations to visit New York. Because he was an avowed Marxist considered a dangerous subversive by the United States, which had put the junta in power, Theodorakis had a visa that did not permit him to travel more than 30 miles from Manhattan.

"Two brilliant Americans -- [folk musician] Pete Seeger and [dramatist] Arthur Miller -- rented a theater for me 30 miles away so that I could speak about the tragedy of Greece," Theodorakis says.

The years of the junta were a tragedy for Greece. After decades of bloodshed and repression that began with the Metaxas dictatorship before World War II and continued during the

German occupation and the 1945-1949 civil war that followed it, Greece emerged from the deep freeze of history with a storm of furious creativity. There were writers such as the novelist-poet Nikos Kazantzakis, the Nobel Prize-winning poets George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis, filmmakers and directors such as Michael Cacoyannis and Costa-Gavras, and composers such as Theodorakis and the avant-gardist Iannis Xenakis.

That flowering of creativity came to an end with the imposition of the dictatorship in 1967. Contemporary Greek culture has never completely recovered from it.

Theodorakis was at the epicenter of the creative maelstrom that preceded the junta. He certainly had the credentials for leadership. He was a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance. In the civil war that followed -- a war caused by left-wing resistance to the right-wing government (including Nazi collaborators) that was imposed on Greece by Great Britain and the United States -- he was so horribly tortured that he walked on crutches for years.

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