Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of The Metropolitan Greek Chorale's 50th Anniversary Concert "Odyssey" at Merkin Concert Hall by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Metropolitan Greek Chorale's 50th Anniverary Concert "Odyssey" at Merkin Concert Hall was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Metropolitan Greek Chorale
50th Anniversary Concert
Music Director: Marina Alexander
Accompanist: Yannis Xylas
Featured Vocalist: Grigoris Maninakis
(with the Microkosmos Ensemble)
Merkin Concert Hall (Kaufman Music Center)
129 West 67th Street, New York, New York
Reviewed 6/6/15 at 8:30 p.m. 

Known as The Metropolitan Greek Orthodox Choir from 1965 until 1969, The Metropolitan Greek Chorale celebrated its 50th Anniversary by giving an inspirational two-hour concert at Merkin Concert Hall on June 6, 2015 that was followed by a champagne reception for all attendees. With men dressed in black tie and women in elegant black gowns with matching white pearls, Music Director Marina Alexander put on a program that allowed The Metropolitan Greek Chorale to revisit past achievements and to take on new challenges all while celebrating Greek culture in its many forms. Established in 1965 by the Council of Greek Orthodox Choir Directors of Greater New York, the newly formed Metropolitan Greek Orthodox Choir functioned under the aegis of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Its first conductor was James Stathis. Today, the Chorale has the distinction of being the longest performing Greek-American choral group in the United States. From choral modes of Ancient Greece and musical renderings of great Hellenic poetry, to works in the Byzantine tradition, as well as Rebetika and contemporary Greek Folk music, the Chorale continues to dedicate itself to performing the widest variety of extraordinary musical genre from its Hellenic heritage. 

Since its 1968 concert debut in Town Hall, The Metropolitan Greek Chorale has performed at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center and other major halls in the United States under the artistic direction and dynamic leadership of outstanding concert maestros: the late Dino Anagnost (1968-1977), Dean of Music of the Archdiocesan Orthodox Cathedral and conductor of  the Little Orchestra Society; George Tsontakis (1978-1995), a world-renowned and award-winning Contemporary Classical Composer, who was in the audience and arranged many of the chorale pieces that were performed; Constantine Kitsopoulos (1999-2004), Queens Symphony Music Director and celebrated Broadway theater conductor; and Marina Alexander (2004-present). Ms. Alexander holds a Master's Degree in Conducting and a BFA in Stage Directing for Opera from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She founded The Arcadian Chorale in New Jersey and has served as the Musical Director of the Richmond Choral Society of Staten Island. Ms. Alexander is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Choral Music at College of Staten Island-CUNY where she teaches Music History and Conducting.

The concert opened with a rousing and inspirational performance of Canto Olympico: Ode to Zeus, which is "an invocation of Zeus, father of the Olympic Games, wherein the singers ask him to appear from the depths of eternity and brighten the opening of the Games by rewarding the victors with a laurel wreath." A complementary and similarly upbeat Canto Olympico: Ode to Apollo began the second half of the concert, wherein "an Olympic athlete invokes Apollo, god of sun, logic, music and lightning to help him win the coveted wreath of laurel and myrtle in the Games, thus glorifying his country." In this latter song, Benjamin Robinson, a Guest Singer, was the soloist. He is a significant talent worth keeping an eye on! 

Petits Cyclades featured a series of poems by Odysseas Elytis set to melody and arranged for the Chorale ("The Garden Was Entering The Sea" - Memories of love expressed in a series of surreal images; "Maya" - The Evening Star with its seven children visits a poor woman's home and leaves behind the youngest one, Maya, pinning her into the woman's hair; "The Cricket" - A man expresses his feelings of loneliness on a moonlit summer night while in the company of a cricket; "The North Wind" - In a small room, a woman is dying with her beloved by her bedside while he begs the Little North Wind not to disturb her; "Give Me Mint To Smell: Marina" - The smell of spearmint, basil and verbena helps a man recall magical moments spent with his beloved Marina; and "It Was Divine Will" - A light-hearted song celebrating the union of two lovers). Three Byzantine Hymns ("Those In Christ," "For The Grace Of God Has Been Revealed," & "The Lord Has Visited Us"), arranged by former Music Director George Tsontakis, were presented next along with Two Greek Dances, arranged by former Music Director Dino Anagnost and current Music Director Marina Alexander. 

Kristina Semos did a fine job as soloist during the presentation of Someone Is Celebrating (about a person who is awoken by a celebration nearby and realizes that she is the one being congratulated) and It Was Not An Island (a song about the sister of Alexander The Great from the stage adaptation of Kapetan Mihalis (Captain Michalis), a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Speak To Me was a particularly impressive piece (also arranged by former Music Director George Tsontakis) about a man who incessantly begs the object of his affection to talk. The outstanding performance of this concert was by Grigoris Maninakis, the Featured Vocalist, who brought along his Microkosmos Ensemble to accompany him. When Mr. Maninakis performed the many traditional, folk and contemporary songs he sang, I was immediately transported in my mind to Athens, recalling the many nights I spent in cafes listening to similar music. Grigoris Maninakis represents the gold standard when it comes to presenting Greek music and his Microkosmos Ensemble (Megan Gould, violin; Richard Khuzami, percussion; Glafkos Kontemeniotis, piano; Kostantinos Psarros, bouzouki; and George Stathos, clarinet) are top notch. I encourage you to see them wherever they perform. 

As featured vocalist, Grigoris Maninakis, sang no less than ten songs during the concert, most so popular and well-known that Music Director Marina Alexander encouraged the audience to sing along. The top audience favorites were The Swallow Requested (a traditional song from the Peloponnese), The Tough Girl (from "The Magiko" - 1928), The Coins (about a passionate man who courts a young woman, showering her with compliments and songs, as well as displays of 'coins'), It Is Worthy Intelligible Sun Of Justice (wherein a narrator implores the Sun of Justice and the glorifying Myrtle, symbol of Nature and Dionysus, to not forget his country), Behave Yourself (where a man talks to his current lover, painfully recounting the details of a failed affair) and If It Could Be 1821 Again (where a man wishes he were alive during 1821's uprising of the Greeks against the Turks. At this point in the concert, Music Director Marina Alexander left the stage leaving Grigoris Maninakis and his Microkosmos Ensemble to perform Little Hariklia (a song by Panayiotis Tountsas (1886-1942) about a man who expresses his love for unattainable little Harikleia ("Hariklaki"), a free-spirited young woman with a legion of admirers). This song featured extraordinary solos by Megan Gould on violin, George Stathos on clarinet and Kostantinos Psarros on bouzouki. To close the concert, Marina Alexander returned to the stage to conduct The Metropolitan Greek Chorale as it performed A Legend, the Chorale's "signature piece" wherein a narrator tells the legend of a man who left civilization to live alone in the mountains while a second narrator disagrees with the original version.

The Metropolitan Greek Chorale's 50th Anniversary Concert was an elegant affair and a great tribute to all who have been associated with the Chorale over the years. In fact, a number of "50-year members" were recognized and participated in this concert. The Commemorative Journal reflects the commitment of its supporters, who appreciate the Chorale's dedication to Greek Language and Culture. This autumn, they begin rehearsals for their annual Christmas Concert, which this year will be held on Sunday, December 6, 2015 at the historic Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. For more information about joining, either as a singer or helping out in a non-singing role (e.g. stage managing, lighting, programs, fundraising), visit their website at www.metgreekchorale.org or call 908-353-1845.  

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