Haunting New Interpretatations of Ancient Greek Tunes on the Upper East Side

by delarue

Last night at Holy Trinity Cathedral on the Upper East Side, clarinetist Petroloukas Halkias and lauto player Vasilis Kostas treated a sold-out crowd to a rare, exhilarating, frequently haunting performance of centuries-old repertoire from the Epirus region of northern Greece.

It was astonishing to witness how much vigor and vitality Halkias, now 85, can still bring to the material. Employing round after round of circular breathing, he most frequently channeled a woody, otherwordly, resonant tone that evoked a duduk. In those instances, his steady, unwavering, meticulous control, typically playing moody, often plaintive variations and melismatic microtones against a low, central note, were absolutely spellbinding.

The scion of a legacy of virtuosos that dates back to the 1880s, Halkias also displayed an American jazz influence…but with airy, purposeful, pensive lines rather than endless volleys of postbop. Kostas, his protege, often picked out clarinet voicings on his lauto, sparkling with hammer-ons and pull-offs. It was a clinic in individualistic interpretations of an ancient tradition.

Kostas said that violinist Beth Bahia Cohen’s similarly spellbinding, ominously chromatic voicings would be difficult to find among musicians from Epirus today, let alone here in the US: he was clearly psyched to have her in the band. His fellow lautist Pangiotis Sakkoulas played steady, jangly rhythm, often holding an enigmatic, open minor sixth chord for minutes on end while his bandmates exchanged solos. Percussionist Pangiotis Georgakopolous may only have been playing the defi hand drum for a few months – he’s a jazz drummer by trade – but had masterful touch and sublety, especially when it came to coloring the lows.

The material was as dynamic as the performance. Kostas sang in expressive Greek throughout a mix of lively drinking tunes, resonant love ballads and several plaintive laments. The best number of the night was a moody minor-key ballad based on a four-chord descending progression, featuring some of Kostas and Halkias’ most poignantly incisive soloing. Several of the numbers began with undulating, brightly major-key verses before taking a turn toward stormier, more ominous Balkan terrain. Both musicians took turns opening songs with tantalizingly brief, woundedly vivid solo improvisations. There was no encore: after almost two nonstop hours onstage, the group got a lengthy standing ovation.

Halkias and Kostas also have a rapturous new duo album, The Soul of Epirus, a more intimate, intertwining approach to many of these songs.