ZeibekikoReviewed by Tyler Hersey
By John Psathas
Wellington Town Hall
March 3, 8pm
In Zeibekiko, Wellington composer John Psathas has created a masterpiece that combines millennia of traditional Greek music and dance with modern compositional techniques and futuristic electro-acoustic sounds. First performed in Amsterdam by the Netherlands Blazers [Wind] Ensemble in April of 2004, the concert represents what Psathas recently called “the ultimate expression of who I am, because it brings all of the things in my identity together”.
Renowned for his compositional work commissioned by the Commonwealth Games and the 2004 Athens Olympics, Psathas is a master of percussion, soaring melody, and rich harmonic exploration. Zeibekiko gave the audience all of these attributes in a wonderful combination of rousing fanfare and introspective soundscapes. Expertly played by the Stroma ensemble, the program took flight under the direction of Hamish McKeich, who conducted with precise swings of his contrabassoon.
The extraordinary concert began with the sound of waves played over the public address system, sending a wash of air over the capacity crowd at Town Hall. Soon, bright red spots lit two trombone players, standing in opposite corners of the balcony. Their slow call and response of the “Salphinx Call” set a mood of conversation between the players and their respective traditions.
The stars of this show were two traditional Greek musicians, around whose playing the entire concert revolved. Manos Achalinotopoulos played the clarinet with both blinding speed and masterful articulation. His tone, with occasional reverb added by the sound mix, enveloped the audience in a rich atmosphere that was at once both pastoral and metropolitan. His instrument of choice is the clarinet in A, with a deeper, more resonant sound than the standard orchestral version. Bringing together the sounds of open country and the dense, ancient cities of Greece and Byzantium, the clarinetist played dizzying lines which looped around a tonal center, climaxing with high, resonant notes which went straight to the brain and sent shivers down the spine. A superb arrangement of his own piece, “Bacchic,” was a surging, stomping highlight of the concert, in which he drew great arpeggios out of the clarinet over a frenzy of percussion and sudden intervals of sweeping, gorgeous harmony.
Driving the entire ensemble was Greek percussionist Vangelis Karipis, who propelled the pieces with rhythms played on handheld drums both large and small. Using one drumstick held traditionally in the left hand and another, much thinner, stick held in the right almost like a chopstick, Karipis created complex polyrhythms on both sides of the drum. His percussion improvisation featuring Stroma’s Jeremy Fitzsimons was a thrilling delight, pulling the audience along as they traded furious phrases and beats played on the skins and rims of their instruments.
Bridging the gap between traditional and modern was Psathas’ exploratory composition “Abhisheka,” in which the woodwinds used close harmonies and sustained overtones to create a wash of sound that evoked the visceral resonances of the body and the universe. Long, held notes from clarinettist Pat Barry and piccolo player Bridget Douglas were stacked over slow crescendos of brass, creating a microtonal piece in which you could almost see the crests and troughs of each sound wave combining in the air over the stage.
Late in the concert, all of the players gathered with hand drums in centre stage, and the audience was finally treated to a performance of the zeibekiko, a libidinous Greek slow dance. The dancer’s arms swept toward the floor as he moved with determined grace, lifting the feet high, shoulders and head rolled downward. This intimate moment was a great lead-in to the finale of Psathas’ “Maenads,” another tumultuous fanfare anchored by electric bass and fantastic interplay between the sweeping clarinet lines of Achalinotopoulos and quick flute countermelodies from Douglas. Huge swells and interlocking ostinato patterns raised the piece to a fever pitch, before ending with a resounding drum hit. It was a fittingly spectacular ending to this sprawling universe of a concert.