VERNAL EQUINOX for five-octave marimba and full orchestra (picc, 2 fl., 2 ob., Eng. hn, 2 cl., 1 b.clar., 2 bsn, 1 cbsn -- 4 hn, 3 trp., 2 trb., 1 b.trb., 1 tb. -- 1 timp., 3 perc. 1 piano/celesta, 1 hrp -- string orchestra). 2020. Commissioned by Theodor Milkov and the Athens Symphony Orchestra with a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. Duration: 33 minutes. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.


Commissioned by and dedicated to marimbist extraordinaire Theodor Milkov, Vernal Equinox is a concerto for marimba and large orchestra cast in three movements. The background theme of the concerto and its title are related to the 2021 Bicentennial of the declaration of the Greek War of Independence which took place on March 25, 1821, the Feast of the Annunciation, and a few days after the Vernal Equinox. The music is not inspired by the events themselves but by the continuous reciprocal relationship between Greece and Europe during the past two millennia. Each movement touches on a different seminal point of this continuing reciprocity.

Revolutions, the first movement, is about the changing climate in Europe towards Greece and the Ottoman Empire during the early 19th Century. This change was largely caused by the seismic emergence of the Romantic movement, particularly in England (Byron) and France (Delacroix) where literature and art played a seminal role in the rethinking of European social structures but also in conceiving, advocating, and even managing the Greek War of Independence. (Byron relentlessly advocated for Greek independence, fortified the city of Mesologi with his own funds and died there.) On the eleventh hour and under the growing pressure by the Romantic movement, the naval powers of England, France and Russia, reversed the course of the failed Greek independence war, destroyed the Turkish navy in Navarino and forced the Sultan to declare Greece an independent state. The music of this movement is a constant repartee between a ‘Turkish’ and a Romantic theme, representative of the east/west dichotomy of the Greek psyche throughout most of the past two hundred years. It is a tormented psyche sometimes seeking comfort in nationalist and militaristic paranoia and other times in surprising innovation, idealism, and individualism. The music constantly bounces between the above extremes.

The curious title of the second movement, The (Re)Birth of Venus, has a literal and a metaphorical allegiance to the main theme. This movement is the reincarnation of a 30-year-old composition, The Birth of Venus, for contrabass and electronics, which I penned in 1990 immediately after the birth of my daughter Maria, who, like in the Greek myth of Aphrodite (Venus), emerged from the waters as the pinnacle of natural beauty. (The rethinking of this composition thirty years later was partly intended as a 30th birthday gift to her.) In connection with the thematic of this older composition in its new role as the second movement of Vernal Equinox, the inspiration was the little-noticed and discussed role that the massive Greek migration of scholars and artists before and soon after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 played in the advent of the Renaissance movement in Italy and the rest of Europe. The Greek themes of early Renaissance painting and sculpture is a clear indication of this cultural and intellectual Greek infusion from the east. My focal point of this moment of reciprocity between Greece and Europe was the painting The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, one of the masterpieces of the Early Renaissance. (Botticelli was born eight years before the Fall of Constantinople and grew up in an intellectual climate fermented by the new arrivals from the east.) The Greek myth has Venus emerge from the foam of the ocean surf off the coast of Cyprus. The music of The (Re)Birth of Venus is full of water and wind sounds all created by extended techniques on the acoustic instruments of the orchestra, particularly the percussion The result is a semi-magical soundscape replete with high-pitched sounds, known music box tunes and simple melodies that a new-born child would enjoy.

Utopias & Dystopias, the shorter third movement is a meditation on the present time, as Greece, weighed down by over 3000 years of history (and accompanying historical Karma), is struggling to define its own role within the neo-liberal European landscape increasingly dominated by the new culture of AI, IT, robotics and capitalist globalization. Minimalist in its structure, the first part of the movement is a showcase for the marimba virtuoso. Hidden inside this technical and technological virtuosity, one can detect hidden tensions underneath the minimalist “sameness” of the overall texture, where the symmetrical “Romantic theme” of the first movement cohabits the same shared space with asymmetrical Balkan meters, the two incongruous rhythmic elements confronting each other and adapting in search of an ambivalent belongingness. But, as with everywhere else in Europe, the “unification” fabric is breaking at the seams. There are tensions between secularism and spirituality, nationalism and universality, “us” and “them”. (Absent from this “negotiated” belongingness is the Eastern element of the Greek psyche, the one Greeks are reminded of daily by the constant influx of refugees from Turkey and beyond.) In this conflicted psychological sate, all it takes is one introspective moment by the soloist meditating on the “Hymn to Freedom”, the Greek national anthem, for the meditation to devolve into nationalist aggression and violence (the same aggression encountered in the first movement, now further expanded). Utopia turns into Dystopia. The music stops suddenly in indecision and fear. In the end, and even though bereft of answers, the individual stands alone in frustrating ambivalence, shutting out the deafening systemic noise of ideologies and socioeconomic systems and structures that oppress him, knowing fully that the real answers reside inside within each one of us, frustrating as it may be to coax them to the cognitive surface.        

Premiere performance: February 12, 2021. Theodor Milkov, marimba; The Athens State Orchestra under the direction of Giancarlo Andretta. Megaron, Athens, Greece.

 


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