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Greek Conductor to Make His Mark at Spoleto

May 18, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ Greek conductor Spiros Argiris has been traveling around the United States, auditioning music students for the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.

It’s a first for Argiris. It’s also his first year as music director of the two festivals: the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., which runs from May 22 to June 7; and the event in Spoleto, Italy, which goes from June 24 to July 12.

He replaces Christian Badea, who resigned after seven years as director in Charleston and 10 years in Spoleto.

Though the 35-year-old Argiris isn’t well known in the United States, he’s been conducting since he was 22. He made his mark first in Europe, conducting modern music.

Gian Carlo Menotti was in the audience in 1975 when Argiris first conducted a Menotti opera, ″The Consul,″ in Athens. Menotti invited him to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. There he conducted ″Queen of Spades″ and, as far as he knew, Menotti forgot about him.

Argiris left Greece when he was 13 years old to attend boarding school in Switzerland. He finished when he was 18 and then studied music in Vienna, Cologne and Paris, where he was one of the last pupils of the late Nadia Boulanger.

He was an only child of actors and grew up loving theater but not opera. ″Opera in Greece is not very developed,″ Argiris said. ″I would say seeing the performances I did, you would immediately forget everything about opera.″

Still, he always considered himself a theatrical conductor and thanks Menotti for firmly setting him on that track. ″I was fighting often, saying to him, ‘Look, that’s the music which is written.’ Maestro Menotti said, ‘Don’t care about that. Just do what I tell you as stage directions.’ That helped me even in Puccini and Wagner.″

But earlier, when conducting ″Queen of Spades″ led nowhere, Argiris thought, ‴What can I do as a Greek? Italians conduct Italian repertoire. There is no Greek repertoire.′ I had very good technique and a rather good ear. I decided to get into the contemporary music business. It was a way to get into the international music circle.″

A German TV director introduced him to composer Hans Werner Henze, who had Argiris conduct the premiere of his ″King of Harlem.″ Then he began getting invitations from other companies.

″The Cologne Opera invited me to conduct Bartok in a big production 100 years afer his birth,″ he said. ″The Berlin Opera invited me to conduct a new opera. Hamburg invited me to conduct for eight hours for the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky. It was a very big honor. For the 90th they had Stravinsky himself.″

Argiris, who calls himself a Prussian from the Orient, lives in Cologne, has a Singapore-born, Greek wife, Lena, and son, Alexis, who speaks Dutch.

Because he conducted modern music, Argiris said he was considered an intellectual, a cerebral person. ″I didn’t deny I could think. I wanted to be taken like a Mediterranean conductor, like a musician. I had another fight to convince people I could conduct nice melody.″

In 1983, he gathered enough courage to drive to Spoleto and tell Menotti he wanted to conduct his works. Argiris conducted all Menotti’s instrumental music except his symphony with the Brussels Radio Orchestra. He also conducted and recorded Menotti music with the Cologne Radio Orchestra. ″That was a big success for me,″ he said. ″Cologne Radio is snobbish and avant-garde. It was a big success to impose another kind of contemporary music. They liked it.″

Usually he conducts like a German, not moving around much. ″It bothers me to give a show in front of the orchestra,″ he said. ″The material of our profession is acoustic not visual.″

But when Argiris conducted Menotti’s ″Mass″ last September at the Festival of Three Worlds in Melbourne, Australia, he used lots of body language. ″I was stiff from making it very strong. It moves me very much. I have a Greek soul. Sometimes it comes out.″

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