Axion Este

May 18, 1994|By GWINN OWENS

We reached our decision with painful regret. We had visited Greece for 10 years in a row. The annual experience had become central in our lives, both personally and professionally. I wrote articles about Greece. My wife taught her students about Greece. Our best friends live in the shadow of the Acropolis. But the cost of these yearly jaunts had depleted our savings. For a retired couple the trip had become too expensive, too strenuous, almost foolhardy.

This decision gave a bittersweet touch to an invitation last week to attend in Meyerhoff Hall the first concert ever presented in Baltimore by the great Greek composer, Mikis Theodorakis.

Americans know him mainly as the composer of the score for ''Zorba the Greek,'' ''Z'' and other films. This, however, is secondary. For his more serious work he is recognized world-wide as one of the great composers of the late 20th century. To Hellenes he is a demigod. His music, from popular songs to symphonic works, never loses its essential Greekness. To hear it is to be transported to Greece, to know the essential joy and sorrow of being Greek.

Mr. Theodorakis, during Greece's lapses into fascism, was twice imprisoned for his left-wing beliefs. (He has sometimes been equally critical of the tyranny of the left.) He is not ''patriotic'' in the usual sense. Rather he writes, through a Greek idiom, of the universal suffering and elation of the human race. Even in his most intensely classical and most famous work, the Axion Este, he uses bouzoukis, the folk instrument of Greece, in his orchestra.

The Axion Este (meaning, roughly, ''It is Right.'') is based on the epic poem of the same name by the Greek poet Odysseus Elitis, who won the 1979 Nobel Prize for literature. It is a passionate poem that on one level deals with the 20th-century agony of Greeks in war, occupation and civil war; on another it suggests the ordeal of humankind throughout history.

Over many years of attending symphony concerts, I have been utterly enraged at the incomprehensibility and ugliness of nearly every piece of so-called classical music written after 1950. Almost without exception modern composers seem to despise their audiences (who despise them). They seem to lack a sense of form, tonality, harmony, majesty and, most of all, beauty. They are incapable of expressing the universalities or reaching for the stars. The exception, perhaps the only exception, is Mikos Theodorakis, who is capable of all of the above.

The Axion Este is performed with full orchestra, a chorus and soloists. It ranges in mood from melodic Greek dance images to sublime passion, occasionally suggesting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, other times closely resembling an oratorio. Its full-chorus climaxes are agonizingly beautiful.

My wife and I listened in stunned surprise. All the Greek images of our long experience, from the Parthenon to the blue and white Aegean islands, came back to us. At the completion of the program the audience, which nearly filled the Meyerhoff, went into a frenzy. They applauded, they cheered, they whistled and began to shout ''more, more, more!'' We had never heard an audience this aroused since we were in -- of all places -- Athens.

Mr. Theodorakis and his company complied. They played not one but four encores, for 50 more minutes, including of course, the music from ''Zorba the Greek.''

It was 11:15 p.m. when Mr. Theodorakis, the soloists, the orchestra and the chorus of the Greek radio-television network, who must have been exhausted, took their last curtain call. We filed out of the hall onto the crowded streets.

At the nearby corner of Cathedral and Preston streets, an enterprising merchant had set up a pushcart on which he was cooking skewers of souvlakia. He was doing a good business. The sweet, herb-laden smoke blew across our nostrils.

We smiled at each other and understood.

As soon as I got home I wrote a letter to Frangiski, our best friend in Athens. I told her we will be back this summer.

Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

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