Would be overkill to declare the best part of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra's weekend in Carnegie Hall the extra concert last night in Lincoln Center? Perhaps. But much as the two programs at the temple on 57th Street underbid expectations, so this tribute to Mikis Theodorakis in Avery Fisher Hall managed to exceed them.
The event was organized by the North American Foundation for Modern Greek Arts, whose chairman, Costas Spiliadis, a friend of Charles Dutoit, is known to Montrealers as the founder of the exclusive Milos restaurant. As for Theodorakis, he turned 75 on July 29 - a good enough reason to honour the Greek composer, playwright and anti-fascist crusader with a well-attended extravaganza in New York.
It was inevitable that the predominantly choral program should conclude with a suite of the zesty, popular music from Zorba the Greek - Theodorakis's greatest hit. The real service performed by Dutoit and his forces was to give an airing to some more recent creations.
Most substantial of these was Antigone, an opera premiered only a year ago in Athens. The fourth and fifth scenes are dominated by the long cantilenas of the title character, whose tragic fate Theodorakis equates with the lot of all conscientious objectors.
While the sorrow and lyricism of the music suggested a comparison with the verismo school, the score was distinctly of its composer. It was accessible but never sensational, and classically orchestrated, as befits a classical Greek story.
Alessandra Marc, an established American soprano, summoned up a remarkably chocolately sound that might have been rich enough to enjoy with no great addition of pathos. But she let us have it both ways. Antigone's final acceptance of her descent to Hades was a moving as well as a beautiful thing. Tenor Howard Haskin had some strong and plaintive interludes as Haemon. Petr Migounov, a young Russian baritone, was not always heard clearly as Creon.
Marc came back after intermission with an aria from Medea (1991). This was closer to an urban ballad in style, with its strophic repetitions and undulating orchestral accompaniment. Still, it made its melancholy effect. The MSO Chorus - cued from the very back of the hall by Iwan Edwards - was in supple, expressive form.
It is fair to say that Theodorakis is a man of the theatre. His Adagio for Flute and Trumpet (Tim Hutchins and Paul Merkelo doing the honours) was a harmless mood piece. In this and in three robust Odes from the Canto Olympico the classical listener felt frustrated by Theodorakis's reluctance to venture far from harmonic home.
He probably would not resent the criticism. The point is to serve the people.
THE MONTREAL GAZETTE