June 27, 2019, Athens, Greece — We rehearsed almost all day at the hotel and then at the venue where we will perform on Saturday, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in the adjacent port city of Piraeus. Niarchos was a famous Greek shipping mogul — alongside Onassis.
Ancient Greece still exists amidst the modern city. That’s the Temple of Zeus in the distance.
En route to the hall, we passed Hadrian’s Arch, built around 131 AD. On the western side is the inscription: ‘This is Athens, the ancient/old city of Theseus.’ On the eastern side: ‘This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus.’ The triumphal arch marks Rome’s conquest of Greece.
It’s been a long time since I studied World History. If you’re in the same fog, I’ll remind you that the Roman Republic controlled Greece from 509-27 BCE. The Roman Empire controlled it from 27 BCE to AD 395. After that, what was termed the Byzantine Empire showed up and ruled from AD 395-1453... but (I just read) the Byzantine Empire (think Constantine the Great) was actually formed from the remains of the Roman Empire, since Rome had by then been sacked by barbarians. So vestiges of Rome were in charge until 1453, bringing the total years of Roman rule to over 1900. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks invaded. They remained in power for 368 years, until the Greeks revolted and gained independence in 1821. The Venetians were around, too, primarily in the Ionian Islands (think Corfu). They temporarily pushed the Turks north, but their main accomplishment was bombarding — and nearly destroying — the Parthenon during their attack on Athens. This is a bare bones history — it’s way more complex.
Near the Hadrian Arch are the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, begun in 174 BCE and completed by Hadrian in 131 AD.
This is the quite splendid Niarchos Cultural Center. We will perform in the Opera House, far left, as part of Athens’ Summer Nostos Festival.
In the rehearsal (and recording) hall. At the podium is Jeff Douma, Yale’s fabulous choral conductor (of the Yale Glee Club as well) and choral music professor.
From the Niarchos Center we went straight to the city-run Eleonas Refugee Camp, where we performed some of the Yale standards, including Shenandoah.
YAC always incorporates ‘service’ activities into its tours, including performances like this one, and donates school or other supplies, or instruments or instrument parts (e.g., violin strings), etc., to organizations in the countries we visit.
The Eleonas camp is located in an Athens neighborhood. We were not allowed to take photos — I snuck this one of some of us lining up to sing...
... but you can see some photos and read about the camp here: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/eleonas-refugee-camp-athens_n_8146140
Some 1700 people of 25 ethnicities are housed, fed, and schooled at the camp. Of these, 500 are children, and their small children’s chorus sang for us and with us on the one song we all knew: Shosholoza, a South African freedom song. Two interpreters translated Jeff’s introductions, one in Farsi, the other in Arabic.
One of our singers ‘spoke’ with one of the adults — though neither spoke the other’s language: He is from Iran, where his wife and his children had all been killed. He managed to get to Greece, to this camp.
Dinner followed at a taverna in Pláka, the oldest Athens neighborhood. Other than the themes from Never on Sunday* and Zorba, I didn’t know the music — until the duo ended the set with Hava Nagila, which at least a dozen of us joined in on.
*Speaking of Melina Mercouri (1920-1994): After her acting career she went into politics, becoming the Minister of Culture. It was through her efforts that the new Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009, came about (see the previous post). She also lobbied to have the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece, but that hasn’t happened...yet. In 1985 she established the concept of the European Capital of Culture — Athens was the first. I’ve been to several others, including Valletta in Malta and Porto in Portugal. Earning this designation is a coup since it’s a great boost to tourism. Wiki: ‘After her death, UNESCO established the “Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes...” which rewards outstanding examples of action to safeguard and enhance the world’s major cultural landscapes.’
Next up: A trip to two Greek isles. #