a look at the music of Vangelis Papathanassiou

With “Mythodea” Vangelis clearly moves into a more classically oriented direction and, after having done so much already and maybe not having much if anything left to prove anymore, tries his hand at a piece of music of larger proportions and different instrumentation. Elements like the symphonic, vocal and philosophical could always be found in his work, but invariably in the context of his own self-produced and relatively short pieces of music. Never before did Vangelis leave the performance of one of his pieces so much to others as he does with this work – the parts he played during the 2001 concert and on the recorded album are quite minimal and pretty basic. Happily enough this means that the orchestra and choir are genuinely used, the pop-cliché of sugar-sweet violins and background-choirs has been avoided. In a sense an orchestra can be compared to a synthesizer – both can be employed to their full potential, or only conventionally. More or less the first is the case with the orchestra in Mythodea (thanks to orchestrator and conductor Blake Neely) and the mixed choir, whose parts were copied from the 1993 premier performance, is also used in various interesting ways.
The soprano parts are reasonably difficult, fortunately the two sopranos, during the concert, had the volume to be audible in the acoustically inconvenient open space. Vangelis’ current preference for using very long notes made the divas having to use their full lung-capacity in order to be able to sing their parts. The tonality of the material appears a bit uncertain at times, causing some hairy moments, but there are plenty of fine vocal moments too. Overall the piece only really gets going after the big mid-point crescendo, with a series of strong arias, duets and choir pieces.
In the concert programme Mythodea was presented as a “choral symphony”, this however is a bit of a misleading term. Besides the choir and orchestra two sopranos were involved and the term “symphony” generally suggests a certain thematic development and multiple parts nevertheless making up one whole. This is hardly the case here – the oldest trick in the book (using the same music to start and finish a piece) cannot sustain the illusion of something symphonic for long. “Choral symphony” is also a sub-genre in classical music (for example Berlioz’s “Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale”) and if you really want to make that comparison, the classical music genre that more closely resembles Mythodea is that of the oratorio. Unlike opera, where the music of the composer, the libretto of the writer and the staging by a director in the theatre all contribute to the end-result, an oratorio is more like a concert-recital of an existing text, without any real staging. Mythodea matches all these aspects of the oratorio, apart from the text, which consists of specific but meaningless words.
Continuing with the classical theme, how will the classical music world receive a work like Mythodea ? Well, this is always difficult to tell and at the time of writing the answer appears to be: not at all, despite the contribution of “big guns” Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. Fortunately Sony Classical seem to have refrained from using the dangerous “cross-over” label (i.e. classical artists doing popular music), even though they are market-leaders in that area. Certainly the absence of a genuine text is a major weak point, using a meaningful text would have upped the classical creds considerably. But something like a general reception is unlikely anyway in the splintered worlds of classical and other music. However, now that the somewhat dogmatic times of the 20th century avant-garde adherents appear to be in the past, a new direction in orchestral music is developing which is more tonal, slightly spiritual and almost Romantic again. Names like Vasks, Maw and Kancheli come up in connection with this and it could be argued that maybe the arch-Romantic Vangelis belongs to this direction as well, at least when discussing serious, indeed spiritual works such as Mythodea and El Greco. But that wouldn’t be quite correct, because he is too much a law upon himself, with a method of creation exclusively based on his own playing. One hint on the lack of attention for works like this is the complete absence of any trace of post-modernism in Vangelis’ work and his views on it. For example claiming that powerful melodic Romantic pieces like Mythodea are somehow expressions of his inner or “cosmic” self (however true that may be in itself), without admitting to any influence whatsoever, past or present, tends not to be taken very seriously nowadays, rightly or wrongly.
Like all music written for orchestras and/or choirs, the fate of Mythodea would be helped by a “performance tradition”, in which conductors and their orchestras and choirs work on the piece in successive generations and get everything they can out of it in terms of sound, tempos and nuance. Should Mythodea only appear as a Vangelis album, one can forget about this. For that it needs to be published or rented out by a music publishing company. In that case it’d be possible in principle that enthusiastic conductors pick it up to work on in the regular concert and recording-business, so that from the classical point of view it becomes more than a twice-performed curiosity. In fact, Vangelis claims in various interviews that one of the reasons for choosing an orchestra was to allow the possibility of it being performed without his involvement.
Among the large group of Vangelis fans who are not also classical music fans, this album seems certain to cause division. Most of them will probably have bought the album after so many years of inactivity by Vangelis in terms of releasing music and a decent number of those will undoubtedly be able to find something in it that appeals to them. Some people will have difficulty getting used to the long passages with opera-voices and choir and the mostly sacred atmosphere won’t be to everyone’s liking either. But it’s probably a fair guess that most people’s top-5 of Vangelis albums will remain unaffected by the Mythodea release. The electronic music that Vangelis used to make, for example on albums like Spiral or later Direct (the favorite of many fans), is far removed from Mythodea. It does sometimes momentarily resemble the music on the Mask album, especially in its livelier moments. The connection with the Mars Space Odyssey project is completely artificial (because nowhere in the picture when Vangelis sat down for an hour in 1993 to play and record the initial keyboard version of Mythodea) and can’t be taken very seriously from a creative point of view.
It will be interesting to see what Vangelis will be doing next, if anything at all, apart from the incidental “bread and butter” stuff like sport-anthems. Does the letting go of this “old” work open up space for major new compositions, or was it a swansong-like final statement. In the round of interviews Vangelis gave in connection with the Mythodea concert, he leaves open all options and still talks about “composing every day” but across the decade leading up to Mythodea 2001 this has usually remained mere talk without being translated into actual releases. There’s also mention of releasing more old works and one can only hope that Vangelis will give for example Antigone, a similar oratorio-like work also dating from the early nineties, the same treatment as was given to Mythodea.

Review by Ivar de Vries