Copyright 1994 Southam Inc. The Gazette (Montreal)

May 8, 1994, Sunday, FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 1412 words

HEADLINE: A GIFT OF MUSIC;; Montreal restaurant owner Costas Spiliadis has mounted a tour for Mikis Theodorakis to bring the Greek composer's music to the younger generation of Greek North Americans



The ancient Greeks believe in a divine sort of craziness. It came on in sacred fits. The god Dionysus had a hand in it.

Most modern Greeks shrug off that ancient syndrome as mythical.

They haven't met Costas Spiliadis.

The last time I saw Spiliadis he hadn't slept in a while. His face was wax-colored; his eyes were like a pair of burnt coals.

Barricaded in a stuffy office over his restaurant, Milos, he was yacking with Carnegie Hall in New York.

He put his hand over the telephone, rolled his eyes skyward and groaned.

"I'm going literally crazy," he said.

I believed him.

He has had other sacred fits - I remember a few doozies - but never so radical, so financially and emotionally limit-stretching as this one. With zero experience, no time and no money but his own, Spiliadis is single-handedly mounting a North American tour for his childhood mentor, Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis.

The tour is not just a project, it's a personal mission.

"Theodorakis was always my hero," said Costas. "Even as a kid. He isn't just a composer, he's a social force. He stands for human rights, social justice, democracy. With him there are no compromises, no obstacles."

(The 69-year-old Theodorakis is best known in North America for his musical scores for the movies Zorba the Greek and Z.)

Speaking of compromises, Spiliadis is a chip off his mentor's block: only the highest and the best will do in terms of concert halls: Carnegie Hall last Friday night, the Kennedy Centre tomorrow, the Lincoln Centre on Wednesday, the Montreal Forum this Saturday night ("I have 6,000 seats to fill!").

The tour won't be hitting just any old cities either: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston.

And now consider the composer-conductor's back-up band - Greece's Orchestra of Contemporary Music, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation Choir, the Macedonia Choir and Greece's Popular Orchestra - an ensemble of 150 professionals in all.

Spiliadis, just under the wire, has been chartering buses for all of them.

"What a nightmare. A few days ago I didn't even know what the term Grayline meant!"

There's a reasoning, though, behind Spiliadis's madness.

"Young Greek people all over North America have been losing a sense of their cultural identity," said the 48-year-old Spiliadis.

"Many are ashamed of certain elements of their parents' culture. And of certain prevalent stereotypes. And they're ashamed of being ashamed. I want to present to them the other Greece. I want them to feel the same pride, the same sense of belonging that was Theodorakis's gift to me when I was young."

That notion, "the other Greece," is a theme of long standing with Spiliadis.

I met him in the very early days of his restaurant, Milos. It too fell into the personal-mission category.

"Many Montrealers thought of a Greek as a fat guy with a dirty shirt standing behind a counter making souvlaki. I wanted to show them that that wasn't the whole picture."

No obstacles. No compromises. From the beginning. Milos fell into the sacred fit category.

In those early days, in the early '80s, Spiliadis drove to New York twice a week - awful 18-hour marathons - with his pockets stuffed with American dollars to buy the best fresh fish in the world for his restaurant.

Then he'd drive back and wait for clients. They didn't come. So he fed the fish to the alleycats and drove to New York again.

He never compromised. He never recognized obstacles. The clients came eventually - in droves. They discovered a quality that had never been found in a Greek restaurant in this city. They discovered certain seafoods - fresh soft-shell crabs and deep-sea lobster to name only two - that had never been served in Canada before.

Milos not only showed Montrealers "the other Greece" culinary version, it raised the standards of other Greek restaurants in the city: a sort of domino effect in reverse.

At the root of Spiliadis's madness was a childhood hurt.

His mother was a Greek refugee from Turkey who grew up surrounded by bouzouki music. That music was frowned on by the bourgeoisie of Patras.

"It was the music of the social underground, the music of urban slums, criminals and hashish smokers. My father used to listen to his mountain music in secret. My mother angrily slammed the window when she heard bouzouki music coming from the jukebox down the street.

"Both were trying to get rid of their cultural identities to survive in middle class Patras. Do you know what kind of music was socially acceptable in my home town? Paul Anka! Imagine!

"I grew up in a cultural vacuum. I was culturally alienated. And then one day, when I was 13, I was sitting in a barber chair and I suddenly heard another kind of music.

"It was a composition by Mikis Theodorakis. I had never heard anything like it. It took bouzouki music but used it in different forms. The music was set to great works of poetry; it acquired a new level of sophistication. That day I listened to a dialectic between Nobel prize-winning poetry and the bouzouki of my mother's childhood."

"I stopped the barber. 'Turn the radio up,' I told him."

For Spiliadis that discovery was a kind of epiphany.

In the years that followed, during the 1960s, Theodorakis and fellow composer Manos Xatzidakis became the leaders of a youth movement dedicated to peace and disarmament.

"We were no longer ashamed of who we were, of our mountain music, our bouzouki. We had our music, our cause, our hope, our ideology. We had finally come out of our ambivalence."

Soon after Spiliadis travelled to the United States to attend university. He carried two suitcases, one heavy, one light. The light one had some clothes, the heavy one was filled with the records of his mentor, Theodorakis.

Spiliadis burned his bridges when he immigrated to Baltimore. Soon after, a military dictatorship brutally crushed his beloved youth movement. Many of his friends were imprisoned.

Life in the U.S. wasn't all roses for Spiliadis.

"The Greek immigrants in the U.S. were where I used to be - in a desperate Paul Anka phase; trying to disappear, to forget their cultural identity as quickly as possible. Longing to be assimilated."

Spiliadis eventually transferred to McGill in the early '70s and immediately felt at home in Montreal. (He finished with a master's degree in sociology).

"Here there's no pressure to be anything but what you are. The beauty of this city is that you can be a citizen and perform all your duties in the collectivity - and still remain unique."

Last May, Spiliadis helped to organize a Theodorakis concert here for the opening of the Alexander the Great exhibitat Bonsecours Market. Theodorakis performed two nights at Notre Dame Basilica.

During one of the concerts, Spiliadis witnessed something that surprised and moved him.

"The hall was filled with a young generation of Greeks, the children of very hard-working parents who made it possible for them to go to university; to become successful professionals. They were the kind of sophisticated young people who usually have difficulty relating to their roots as they are perceived here.

"I didn't think the generation needed a sense of cultural identity, but I was wrong. That night they came out of the closet. They were thrilled to rediscover who they are."

"That night I thought, 'What a gift I could give this generation of Greeks born in North America.' "

Spiliadis, 48, felt a fit of divine craziness coming on.

"Don't tell my wife what I'm spending," he told me.

Through all of these manic last-minute preparations, he and his mentor, who are different as chalk and cheese, have formed a deep if eccentric friendship.

"We've been up each night talking until 3 a.m." Costas told me long-distance from New York, burnt out and euphoric (the Carnegie Hall concert last Friday night was a resounding success). "He talks about the totality of things, philosophy, history, the relationship to man to God. . . ."

Spiliadis loves those late-night talks, Theodorakis's sense of balance and wisdom. The composer is attracted by a different quality in the younger man. A divine sort of craziness which comes out in sacred fits.

They say the god Dionysus has a hand in it.

Mikis Theodorakis, at the Forum on Saturday 8 p.m. For information and tickets call 790-1245.

GRAPHIC: AP/ Costas Spiliadis stands outside Carnegie Hall last week where Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis performed Friday night.

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