Christos Hatzis at 60 | Kingston Grand Theatre

Christos Hatzis at 60

Oct 4th, 2013 - 7:11PM /
Julie Fossitt
jfossitt [at]

Thank you to Colin Eatock who allowed the Grand Theatre to re-print this fantastic article about Christos Hatzis. Hatzis, a renowned contemporary Canadian composer, will have his music featured with the Gryphon Trio in their debut performance of Constantinpole on Wednesday, October 9 at 7:30pm. Come early for a pre-show In Conversation with Eric Friesen.

Christos Hatzis at 60
by Colin Eatock

Yesterday, I stopped by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music to hear a program of chamber music by Christos Hatzis.

In case you don’t know, Hatzis is a Canadian composer of Greek origin who teaches at the U of T. He’s one of a very few Toronto-based composers with a truly international career – yet in some ways he is neglected in his adopted city. (The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has only ever once played one of his compositions.) He’s also a composer whose music – and whose ideas about music – I always find thought provoking.The concert was a retrospective affair, in honour of his 60th birthday. There were no new compositions premiered; rather, the program was dominated by excerpts from his extended chamber work Constantinople, and his String Quartet No. 2 “The Gathering.” On hand to perform these two works were the Gryphon Trio and the Penderecki String Quartet.

Constantinople was written for the Gryphon Trio, 13 years ago. It’s a multi-media work, featuring visual imagery, and some movements also call for female vocal soloists. However, there were no singers or projections in the U of T’s Walter Hall on this occasion. The trio selected three movements scored for violin, cello and piano only: “Dance of the Dictators,” “Odd World” and “Old Photographs.”

The Gryphons have played these pieces often – and it showed in the agility and security of their performance. “Old Photographs” is a favourite of the trio’s, and they carried it off with flashy bravura. Together, these movements speak volumes about Hatzis’ approach to composing. First, they announce that he is a composer who wears his influences on his sleeve. The tangos of Astor Piazzolla, Middle-Eastern melodies, a Celtic sense of modality, and even a touch of Reich-Glass minimalism are just four sources of inspiration that are immediately apparent.

And sometimes modernist dissonance rears its head, too. But for Hatzis, modernism is just more grist for his mill. Evidently, he’s not of the view that atonality “superseded” tonality. His music gives the impression that, as far as he’s concerned, the style wars of 20th-century music need not be carried into the 21st century (if, indeed, they were ever necessary at all). He calls his all-inclusive approach “trans-national” and “trans-dogmatic.”
Hatzis clearly has little interest in building his music around a strict theoretical or structural framework. On the contrary, his approach to composition seems touchy-feely, and the result is proudly episodic: if something sounds good to him, he writes it down. And his ideas about what sounds good aren’t much different from the average classical concert-goer’s. He may stretch his material in novel or unfamiliar ways, but he has no wish to launch a frontal attack on his listeners’ tastes.

Listening to his String Quartet No. 2 – played with admirable intensity by the Pendereckis – made me think of yet another potential influence on Hatzis. His music doesn’t generally sound much like Shostakovich, only rarely touching on the darkness and bitter irony of the great Soviet composer. Yet like Shostakovich, Hatzis has mastered the art of enfolding seemingly incompatible ideas and idioms within a single work. This is not easily done, and many composers have fallen on their faces in the attempt.

The result is a music of extremes: sometimes tranquil, or ominous, or fierce, or furtive – or a great many other things, as well.

Finally, there was one piece on the program that wasn’t by Hatzis. He chose to include a piano trio by one of his students, Laura Silberberg. Like her teacher’s music, her On a Whim was unapologetically tonal, but marked by sudden mood-swings and moments of gnarly dissonance. And like her teacher’s music, it worked.