|"It is a strange business," New Yorker critic Alex Ross has written about contemporary classical music. "You have to believe deeply in yourself to get through the process. You have to be possibly a little mad." In an era dominated by pop culture, it's hard for a serious composer to find an audience, or even musicians who will perform his or her work.
Despite these obstacles, innovative compositions are still being written. And Boston University's Theodore Antoniou is among those who are helping make sure that they are performed. An internationally renowned composer with hundreds of works to his name, Antoniou is also among the most energetic living exponents of modern music. His efforts have led at least one critic to describe Antoniou's name as "synonymous with contemporary music."
"I work to create an environment around me that I like," Antoniou has been quoted as saying. Now in his sixties, Antoniou has the dynamic, enthusiastic manner of someone who has spent a lifetime engaged in work to which he is passionately committed. Over the course of his career, he has founded several ensembles dedicated to the performance of music by living composers -- talented musicians who might otherwise not have the chance to hear their work played live in front of an audience. On April 28th, Antoniou's ALEA III ensemble marked its 23rd year with a fundraising concert held at the Tsai Performance Center in Boston.
Those who attended the concert were treated to Gershwin songs, folk melodies arranged by Bela Bartok, an incandescent Rachmaninoff prelude, high speed xylophones and marimbas, and a tango. A modernist classic -- Darius Milhaud's "La Creation Du Monde"was also featured, and famed violinist Roman Totenberg performed Debussy's G minor sonata.
The chance to see Totenberg play was in itself worth the admission price. The father of NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, he is one of the last living representatives of the modernist movement that flourished prior to World War II -- the generation of Picasso, Chagall, Balanchine and Stravinsky. The most celebrated names in twentieth century music have been among his friends and acquaintances. They have included Georges Enescu, Darius Milhaud, Pierre Monteux, and Soulima Stravinsky, Igor's son, who became Totenberg's longtime pianist.
The Polish-born Totenberg was a child progidy who made his solo debut with the Warsaw Philharmonic at age eleven. As a rising young star, he performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, the White House, the Library of Congress, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Carnegie Hall. Totenberg was among the intellectuals and artists who sought refuge in Paris following Hitler's rise to power in Germany; when Paris too became dangerous, Totenberg emigrated to America, where he has continued his illustrious career.
The ALEA III soloists also included pianist Konstantinos Papadakis, baritone Mark Aliapoulios, and Russian violin duo Yuri Mazurkevich. The second half of the program featured the Contemporary Greek Music Ensemble in a performance of songs by Hadjidakis and Theodorakis.
ALEA III is the third group of its kind organized by Theodore Antoniou. Founded in 1978, it has presented works by hundreds of contemporary composers, many of them living. The ensemble's name derives from a Homeric word which means "to wander." The word "alea" also figures in the vocabulary of twentieth-century music: avant-garde composers during the fifties and sixties experimented with "aleatoric" or chance-based methods of composition. Besides signalling his involvement with contemporary music, the ensemble's name also highlights Antoniou's ties to his native country, Greece.
Just as it has in the areas of literature, art, and science, Greece has contributed mightily to the development of twentieth century music.
Composer Iannis Xenakis, who died in February, produced music which Wire reviewer
Ben Watson termed "an alien shard, glimmering in the heart of the West." Xenakis incorporated ideas from mathematics, physics and architecture, producing a music of unparalleled rigor and intensity. Described by Antoniou as a "highly original and individual voice," Xenakis pioneered many of the methods used in computer music. Another Greek experimentalist, Yanni Christou, also has an avid following. Less well-known than Xenakis but equally daring, a car accident abruptly ended Christou's career in 1970.
Earlier in the century, Nikos Skalkottas and Dimitri Mitropoulos were among the first Greek composers to use atonal and twelve-tone techniques in their music. Mitropoulos went on to become a conductor of international renown; Skalkottas is widely known for his orchestral settings of Greek folk dances.
Antoniou continues this rich legacy. International composition contests sponsored by ALEA III have inaugurated the careers of several young Greek composers. And Antoniou, who is president of the National Greek Composers' Association, spends part of every year in his native country, staging works at the Athens Festival and Epidavros. In 1997, the Greek Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the country's highest distinction in music, and last year Greek radio presented him with the Dimitri Mitropoulos award in recognition of his life's work.