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City of conflict, city of hope?

The Social Hall of the Ismaili Centre
11/26/2015 -  & November 27, 28, 2015
Christos Hatzis: Constantinople
Maryam Hassan Toller & Patricia O’Callaghan (singers)
The Gryphon Trio: Annalee Patipatanakoon (violin), Roman Borys (cello), Jamie Parker (piano)
Marie-Josée Chartier (director/choreographer), Jacques Collin & Lionel Arnould (projection design and production), Bernard White (set and original lighting design), Hugh Conacher (lighting design), Heather MacCrimmon (costume design), Anthony Crea (sound design engineer)

P. O’Callaghan (Courtesy of the Gryphon Trio)

Christos Hatzis’s multi-media piece Constantinople was premiered in 2004 and has since toured in Canada, the US and also to Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio. There is also a recording.

The venue this time was the Social Room of Toronto’s Ismaili Centre, one part of a splendid complex (total cost: $300 million) built by the Aga Khan. The other major building, designed by Toyo Ito, houses the Aga Khan’s art collection and hosts temporary exhibitions. Over the past several months the Aga Khan Council for Canada has been presenting a program of lectures, workshops and performances on urban issues called Cities of Arrival. The three performances of Constantinople wrap up this program.

Christos Hatzis composes electroacoustic music, thus works that combine recorded sounds with performers on stage. In this case there were five performers: the three members of the Gryhon Trio, plus singers Patricia O’Callaghan and Maryem Hassan Toller. All performers were amplified, no doubt a necessity to keep them from being overwhelmed by the digital audio sounds. The recorded sounds were not the (now old-fashioned?) electronic music we were introduced to back in the 60s (although there might have been some), but quite an array of music, heavily middle eastern in tone, beyond what the trio and singers could produce. At one point there is some choral music sung by the English Chamber Choir.

One big question here is about electroacoustic music, especially when the “electro” not only sets the pace but dominates the “acoustic”. Why even have live performers when their contribution is so secondary? The singers particularly could just as well have been lip-synching, or simply dancing.

Accompanying it all were images projected on to two screens, one large and one huge. The images helped illustrate Hatzis’s aim to portray (in his words) “a long history of peaceful coexistence in the ancient city of Constantinople”. I have been to Istanbul and read up on its history and know that coexistence hasn’t always been peaceful by any means, nor is it now. He writes of “a marriage of worldviews” which certainly sounds more like a wish than reality. The 75-minute work has seven sections in which it combines both Christian texts (such as the opening Greek Orthodox Easter Chant) with poems in Arabic; there is also a folk poem from the Byzantine (pre-Christian and pre-Islamic) era. There was also an eighth section (“Dance of the Dictators”), but not this time. There is no narrative structure.

Just two of the sections are performed by the Gryphon Trio by themselves (still amplified), and much of their music is impressively intricate. The two singers also perform choreographed movement with a ritualistic result. The images are evocative and at times become more like straightforward travelogue. Much of the music is reminiscent of another expat Greek composer, Vangelis.

The work has obviously been developed by accretion. It started out as a commission for a 20-minute work from the Gryphon Trio, then other “scenes” were added over a number of years. It is hard to define just what has resulted. The composer mentions “convergence, conflict, dialogue, cross-fertilization and every other form of exchange”. I guess they’re all in there somewhere (along with a tango which “portrays the interaction of dark and light elements”). The performers seem very dedicated and the piece storms along. But the end result seems to be a mishmash of folkish belief (some of it with profound historical results) given a high toned “exotic” nightclub treatment.

Michael Johnson



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