The recently established Athens Philharmonic under the fluid and hypnotic baton of Yiannis Hadjiloizou made their American debut last Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. They opened with an excerpt from Cyprus’ first opera composer, Michael Hadjiloizou, the conductor’s father, who was in an upper balcony. “The Song of Kyprianos,” a patriotic song, was from his opera 9th of July 1821. The patriotic opening was amplified both in instruments and orchestral arrangement by his son, the conductor. This excerpt was a short, lively piece.
Cyprus Dance No. 1, Servikos (U.S. Premiere) by Yiannis was an even more lively work. The rather suspenseful Gothic opening gave way to increasingly excited tempo and concluded in ecstatic fervor; it was as if the transport of dance gave voice to individual independence from repressive authority. This was effective table setting for what the virtually sold-out audience came for—Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, nicknamed Resurrection.
While Mahler completed the first movement of his Second Symphony in September of 1888, the final fifth movement was not completed until autumn of 1894; its premiere was in 1896. Beginning as a sequel to Mahler’s First Symphony, it offers a long meditation on the death of the symphony’s mythical hero Titan, which becomes a larger sociological and personal meditation on death itself. Titan only becomes victorious in death; Titan was figura for the composer who felt that the genius of his work would be apparent only after he died.
Mahler had worked on his Second Symphony, begun in 1888, during his summer vacations in the Austrian Alps when he was free from conducting. The first and fourth movements were quickly sketched out that first summer. But after six years, Mahler was at a loss on how to conclude the work. In the bleak winter of 1884 at the funeral of Hans von Buelow in Hamburg, Friedrich Klopstock’s choral ode Resurrection was performed. Mahler, deeply in grief for a friend and colleague whom he deeply admired, felt that through the poetic words sung that silent figure of Buelow in his casket was directly addressing him. Mahler realized that affirmation of great music, as well as impressive conducting, has a life beyond the composer and conductor, that superb music and inspired performance is itself the language of perpetual resurrection.
Mahler’s Second Symphony endures, in many ways, as the ultimate test of a conductor, which is why, for this first performance of the Athens Philharmonic in the United States, this work was most likely chosen. The fabulous Fifth movement, which integrates the complexity of the first four movements, provides one of the most difficult challenges for any conductor. The Fifth movement provides the transcendental living musical language that goes beyond the ordinary dead past of the previous four mythical movements and brings one into the resurrected present. When performed well, this symphony is a kind of miracle: one feels reborn—transformed—into the optimism of the immediate moment. Exalted music remains the most eminent immortality that humankind may achieve. And that was what conductor Yiannis Hadjiloizou achieved Thursday night at Carnegie Hall.
It was as if Mahler himself was resurrected in the persona of The Athens Philharmonic displayed in the performance of Mahler illustrating that Greek classical music has undergone a magnificent Resurrection. Concertmaster violinist Jannis Georgiadis supplied virtuoso violin lines. Two of Klopstock’s poems were sung: “Primal Light,” which displayed the influence of William Blake (Immortal life! Immortal life! / Will He who called you, give you”) was sung magnificently and sumptuously by Mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas; both Daveda and Soprano Larisa Martínez sang lines by Mahler influenced by John Donne (“O Death! You conqueror of all things! Now you are conquered!”). Larisa sang silvery, clear, climatic high notes, yet at times Larissa needed more projection in the lower register.
As a conductor Yiannis put more silent space into some transitions; this approach added dramatic suspense, especially in places where horns arrived; the nuance horns delivered were positively savory. Strings were unified; flutes clearly trilled; percussion nearly brought me out of my seat, so unerring and authoritative was rhythm. There are some noted recordings of Mahler’s Second, but every concert goer knows that such recordings are wispy feeble ghosts.
As they say, you had to be there! The rich texture of this performance was a memory to treasure. How does one thank 124 musicians who played as one and 148 choral singers of the New York Choral Society under direction of David Hates? This astonishing musical Gargantuan feast was sponsored by Ambassador Katerina Nafplioti Panagopoulos in memory of her recently deceased husband, Pericles Panagopoulos.