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Poetry across cultures; an event to mark the 25th anniversary since the death of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos.

British poet David Harsent and Greek composer Thanos Mikroutsikos join the British Ambassador and guests at the British Residence

In an evening of poetry and music, a hundred guests joined British Ambassador John Kittmer, British poet David Harsent and Greek composer Thanos Mikroutsikos in paying tribute to the work and influence of the famous Greek literary figure, Yannis Ritsos, in the presence of his granddaughter, Lyto Ritsou.

Twenty five years since his death, Yannis Ritsos continues to fascinate his readers through his long life of poetry and his enormous contribution to the literature of the twentieth century. Spanning six decades, Ritsos wrote and published voluminously, creating some of the best known and most recognisable poems of his era. Ritsos has been widely translated into English while masterful settings by Greek composers such as Theodorakis, Leontis, Kotsonis and Mikroutsikos have contributed to the poet’s reputation in Greece as well as abroad.

David Harsent has won many prizes for his collections of poetry and is also a great interpreter of Ritsos through his English versions of the poet’s work. Among recently published versions of Ritsos, he also presented some versions prepared specially for Thursday’s event. Famous Greek composer Thanos Mikroutsikos performed superbly his setting of Ritsos’ Moonlight Sonata as well as some of the songs from Mikis Theodorakis’ settings of Romiosyni and Epitaphios. Actors Julia Watson and Lydia Koniordou, joined by vocalist Kostas Thomaidis, rendered homage to the great Greek poet through readings and vocalisations in English and Greek.

The British Ambassador said:

Great poetry has many lives and has the power to cross cultures. David Harsent’s impressive approach to Ritsos’ poems is a great example of that in English. The great musical settings of Ritsos’ poems by Mikis Theodorakis and Thanos Mikroutsikos are further examples of poetry’s sinuous capacity for multiple transformations. I have been inspired by much of Ritsos’ poetry for many years. It was a great pleasure to bring some of that inspiring poetry to the Residence tonight, through our five wonderful performers. To unite people through poetry and music is a great privilege.

During the event, the British Ambassador launched a poetry competition in Greece to remember the First World War and the impact of war. More information about the competition which is open to students and adults, is available here.

Note to editors

Photos of the event available here.

Yannis Ritsos was born in Monemvasia in 1909, the youngest child of a family of landowners. His early childhood was happy, but as he started his teenage years, his family entered a period of crisis. His brother Mimis died from tuberculosis in 1921, and his mother died of the same illness only a short while later. His father suffered greatly from these losses. Ritsos spent his high-school years alongside his beloved younger sister, Loula, in Gytheio. They both went up to Athens together in 1925 to study at the university. But Ritsos himself was soon struck by tuberculosis. He spent much of the next few years in sanatoriums. In this period, he became politicised and continued his education in poetry and politics through the people and personalities he met while convalescing. From his childhood, Ritsos’ mother had encouraged him to paint and to write poetry. He would paint and write throughout his long life. He was prolific and his poetry reflects a mind that was ever open to multiple inspirations, ever evolving in its scope and passions: politics, current events, the landscape and seascapes of Greece, other poets and other poetry, his own sufferings in prison camps, the cycles of Greek mythology, the everyday and the humdrum, the human body, love, the process of ageing, the eternal. His political commitment to Communism meant that he embodied, in his own trials and sufferings, much of the tragic history of the Greek twentieth century. His poetry was burned under the Metaxas Dictatorship; he was held captive on prison islands after the Civil War and again during the Colonels’ Dictatorship.

Ritsos has been widely translated into English, though the translations cover only a fraction of his total oeuvre. His popularity owes much to its enduring capacity for adaptation to music. Masterful settings by composers such as Theodorakis, Leontis, Kotsonis and Mikroutsikos have contributed to the poet’s reputation in Greece and elsewhere. Yannis Ritsos died on 11 November 1990. He is buried in the beautiful cemetery a few minutes’ walk outside the great entrance gate at Monemvasia.

David Harsent has published eleven volumes of poetry. Legion won the Forward Prize for best collection 2005; Night (2011) won the Griffin International Poetry Prize. In Secret, his English versions of poems by Yannis Ritsos, was published in 2012 in the UK and in the USA in 2013. His most recent collection, Fire Songs (2014) won the T. S. Eliot Prize. He has collaborated with composers – most often with Harrison Birtwistle – on commissions that have been performed at (among other venues) the Royal Opera House, the Royal Albert Hall (Proms), the Concertgebouw, The Megaron (Athens), the South Bank Centre, the Edinburgh Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival, the Salzburg Festival and Carnegie Hall. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton.

Thanos Mikroutsikos was born in Patras in 1947. In cooperation with many record companies – such as EMI-Classics, Blue Note, Polydor, Sony (CBS), EMI, Agora, etc. – he has recorded numerous LPs and CDs. In the course of his career, Thanos Mikroutsikos has given hundreds of concerts, both in Greece and abroad. He has either participated or had his music pieces played in various international music festivals (London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Paris, Lille, Lyon, Reims, Montpellier, Brussels, Liege, Geneva, Lausanne, Barcelona, Madrid, Verona, Florence, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Vienna, Istanbul, Budapest, Bucharest, Constanta, Norwich, Louisiana, Chicago, Hong Kong, Bourges, Milan, Lisbon, Ankara, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Cairo, etc.).

Julia Watson has worked in theatre extensively across the UK. In London she appeared in several plays for the National Theatre (playing Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, and Sofya in Wild Honey with Ian McKellan) and has made appearances in West End theatres, notably in Michael Frayn’s Exchange. Julia played Gertrude in An Ideal Husband for the Sir Peter Hall Company. With ‘Actors From the London Stage’, she has toured several productions of Shakespeare to the USA and the Far East. A busy TV career has included playing Dr Baz in Casualty on and off for 18 years. She was the reciter for The Woman and the Hare (Birtwistle/Harsent) with the Nash Ensemble – which was performed at the South Bank Centre, the Wigmore Hall and the Megaron (Athens). She received a Grammy nomination for best performance. She has published three anthologies of prose and poetry for Penguin books and is a member of the board of examiners at LAMDA, one of the UK’s top drama colleges.

Lydia Koniordou is one of the world’s leading classical performers. Born in Athens, she studied English Literature and attended the National Theatre Drama School. Her work has appeared both in Greece and internationally, as she has worked with some of most significant theatre directors of our times: Alexis Solomos, Alexis Minotis, Karolos Koun, Lefteris Voyatzis, Kostantinos Tsianos, Anatoly Vasiliev, and most recently Robert Wilson. As a director she has worked with the National Theatre, NYU, Oxford University, Bigampton University, the Getty museum, the Shanghai Theatre Academy.

Kostas Thomaidis was born in Thessaloniki and started performing at the age of eight. He has worked with a large number of Greek composers, including Thanos Mikroutsikos and Mikis Theodorakis, and has sung poems set to music, by Kavafis, Ritsos, Seferis, Elytis, Anagnostakis, Livaditis, Skarimbas). He has composed music for the theatre and children’s songs. He teaches vocals in «Philippos Nakas” conservatoire and is a radio producer.