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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vintage Conductor's Greek Odyssey

This week will be a busy one for Odissei Dimitriadi. On Monday he is leaving for Greece to continue his musical career. On Thursday he celebrates his 86th birthday. "I am the oldest conductor in Russia who can still stand up and conduct an orchestra," said Dimitriadi proudly. Dimitriadi, a Georgian-born Greek with a mane of white hair, thick spectacles, a dash of vanity, tenacious energy and a dandyish bow tie, could not be mistaken for anyone but the classical conductor he is. The spectacles have a story. Two weeks ago he conducted Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades" at the Bolshoi Theater, wearing someone else's. "The repairman took my glasses and then he closed up shop and went away," Dimitriadi said. He borrowed a pair of spectacles from one of his students. They were good enough for him to see the orchestra, but not the score. "I couldn't see the notes, but fortunately I know the 'Queen of Spades' by heart," Dimitriadi said. He said he was sad to be leaving the Bolshoi, where he is one of the main conductors, but he felt the pull of his ethnic homeland, his family and his desire to give a boost to Greek national music. But he did not want to use the word "emigration." After all, he would be back next spring to conduct the Bolshoi orchestra and his beloved Tchaikovsky. Dimitriadi grew up in the Black Sea port of Batumi, the youngest of eight children of a Greek trader. He remembers it as a "progressive," cosmopolitan city, where the ships brought visiting foreigners of all kinds and the cafes were full of Greeks drinking coffee and playing dominoes. He got his first job at age 15, playing the piano accompaniment to silent movies in the Piccadilly cinema. From there it was a rapid rise, through the conservatories of Tbilisi and Leningrad, to conducting some of the Soviet Union's biggest orchestras. He conducted Svyatoslav Richter in Carnegie Hall in New York and the American pianist Van Cliburn, the first winner of the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, in Tbilisi. Richter, he says, was a "philosopher." Cliburn, whose star has fallen since the 1950s, was "a big romantic, a man of the big gesture." In Athens in 1964, he was received as a native son, a moving experience for someone who had grown up speaking Greek at home but had never worked in Greece. "It was a special joy," said Dimitriadi. "For the first time in my life I spoke to an orchestra in my native Greek." Dimitriadi also described himself as a romantic type, a "very temperamental person." He said he was particularly fond of the great 19th-century composers, from Verdi to Tchaikovsky, and that he admired the great Italian performer Arturo Toscanini. "I got too carried away in my youth, I threw my baton left and right too generously." he said. "Now I am a bit wiser. This wisdom appeared after I was 70, a little late." In Greece, he said, he hopes to give the two big orchestras in Athens the benefit of his experience, as well as earn some money for his grandchildren. His biggest fear is being left with nothing to do: "I love working. As long as I have something to do I will do it. Music feeds me." Dimitriadi is also planning to meet up with an old colleague he worked with in Sukhumi in the 1920s, to try and revive two operettas he wrote for the local Greek theater. The theater burned down, taking with it both manuscripts. Now he said his friend wants to reconstruct them. "He says he remembers the melodies," Dimitriadi said with a gleam in his eye.