A Profile of Teodor Currentzis
One January morning in 2013, an orchestra was recording at 2:30 a.m. They had been working at Petropavlovskaya ulitsa 25A, the P. I. Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre in Perm, Russia, since midnight. The piece was “Per pietà, ben mi, perdona,” Fiordiligi’s aria with horn obligato from Mozart’s opera “Così fan tutte.” It still wasn’t right. After a long discussion, the orchestra tried a new formation with the horn player sitting up front next to the soprano, the conductor, and the concertmaster. “And then, in the transition to the final Allegro moderato, there was this incredible tension, and tears began running down my face,” the hornist, Christian Binde, said. “I almost couldn’t play anymore because I was so moved.”
“I think we have everything,” the producer said from the cabin. “We have everything, or you think we have everything?” the conductor responded. The recording session continued. The tension in the room rose. The conductor and the soloists were curt with one another. “I’m tired,” someone said. Words were exchanged. And suddenly, it was time to go home. “I need another spirit for this, see you tomorrow,” the conductor said. Off he went. “I was shocked. For a second I asked myself whether he had lost his mind. We all thought the aria was finished,” Binde said.
The ensemble met again the following afternoon. The atmosphere was wary; the soprano, Simone Kermes, felt on edge. It was as if they were starting again from nothing: tabula rasa. “And suddenly, the atmosphere from ‘Per pietà’ was right. That feeling of emotional devastation,” Binde said. The ensemble recorded for another hour and a half, and then they were finished.
A conductor who records in the middle of the night; who pushes the musicians to their limits, whom more than one person declares to be mentally unsound, who ruins the recording routine to get the result that he wants—these stories are less common in classical music than they used to be. Particularly striking was the way Binde told me this story. His voice broke more than once when he talked to me on the phone, not just about that late night, but also while describing other performances with the ensemble in Perm. He felt “a kind of direct euphoria that [he] hadn’t experienced working with nearly any other conductor.” Like everyone else who knows him, he calls him simply Teo. Teodor Currentzis.
“That was one of the highlights of my musical career,” Binde went on. It’s a phrase that I heard many times in my conversations with musicians about the 45-year-old Currentzis. Orchestral musicians, soloists, composers, conductors, people who’ve been in the classical music business for decades, who’ve played with the best independent ensembles and the most prestigious orchestras, specializing in early, classical, and new music—this conductor pulls them into his orbit, inflames their passions. Even when they’re not playing, they buy tickets for his concerts, just to hear what he’s up to. What is Currentzis doing to musicians? What is he doing to music?
One cold evening in Berlin in January of 2016, I heard Currentzis and his Perm-based ensemble MusicAeterna play a concert in a former sewage plant. The program: Arvo Pärt’s “Psalom,” Biber’s programmatic war depiction “Battalia,” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Currentzis tore into every accent and exaggerated every detail. He went without a podium. He stomped, danced, wandered into the middle of the standing orchestra, his concertmaster, Afanasy Chupin, dancing like a dervish. For me, the Symphony dissolved into an endless string of individual effects; instead of breathing naturally, the music ended up gasping for air. Others found it preening and mannered. But a large swathe of the audience was beside itself with ecstasy, caught up in the energetic tour de force. Everyone had an opinion. “Love it or hate it” is another phrase that comes up often in conversations about Currentzis.
“I don’t carry a baton. [Conducting with one] would be like hugging a beautiful woman without setting aside your crutches.”
(In Esquire Russia)
“What Teo does so well is the meta content of music, its associative power…he speaks so directly to that that it doesn’t matter whether the notes are played according to historical rules,” Christian Binde told me. “In opera, he follows the psychology of the characters slavishly, so that it’s irrelevant whether the performance adheres to Leopold Mozart’s violin treatise.” Before one concert of Bach Motets, Currentzis lit incense in his green room. Recording “Don Giovanni” in Perm, he dressed differently according to what was happening in each scene: a farmer’s outfit and wide tunic in one, a gold embroidered robe in another, suit and tie for the finale. His goal was to create an emotional rather than historical reenactment, to achieve immediacy over accuracy.
“Currentzis goes two steps further,” said Matthew Sadler, a trumpet player in the Mahler Camber Orchestra who often plays with MusicAeterna. “For him, it’s about recreating the atmosphere or zeitgeist of that time. Like in his recording of Rameau’s ‘Orage’ from ‘Platée,’ where the storm is really a storm.” The violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whose radical approach to music has much in common with Currentzis’s, described this as “combining Mozart with your own perspective, your own worldview.”
Tradition and convention can be suffocating. For some pieces, decades or even centuries of “the way it’s supposed to be” have accumulated like a thick layer of dark dust. Currentzis is the right person to sweep that dust away. A year before the concert in Berlin, he played another concert here, of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. That work is underpinned by deep currents of emotion, but is often played like the currents have slowed and the river long since frozen over. Currentzis melted the ice and gave the piece back its painful immediacy.
“If you could invite a dead composer over for dinner, who would it be?” “Schubert! We’d talk about lost love. And then we’d get drunk and play piano four hands.”
(In Esquire Russia)
Other pieces aren’t burdened by tradition, but need force of imagination to go from notes on the page to living, breathing thing. Berio’s fantasy on a folksong, “Coro,” which Currentzis performed at the Philharmonie in Cologne in April 2017, morphed what could come across as a collection of disconnected statements and gestures into a timeless flow, at one point even seeming to transcend linear perception.
And then there’s Mozart. In the first seven bars of the Requiem, Currentzis leads the bassoon and basset horns into a sweet dialogue, full of pain and solace. I’ve never heard anything like it.
Currentzis’s recordings of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas catapulted him into the spotlight of the classical music world. Once he got there, he polarized. “His Mozart recordings are breathtaking,” Kopatchinskaja said. One conductor told me, “Despite how much I admire him, I’ll never forgive him for his Mozart.” His need to reinvent the wheel with each recording can come across as compulsive, and his quest for emotional immediacy sometimes veers into kitsch.
On the one hand, Currentzis’s hubris—in his liner notes to the operas, it’s obvious that he considers himself the most radical interpreter of Mozart in history—can come across as bloviating. On the other hand, it’s refreshing for someone to be a bit of a big-mouth in the cautious, careful classical scene. And perhaps this confidence explains Currentzis’s unique talent for connecting with his musicians and the audience.
Music is an art of time and space. Within that vast framework, there are innumerable variables. Some of these are banal: the attitude of the players, where they rehearse and for how long. For some, that these conditions are normally so codified is a sign of hard won victories in the fight for fair labor practices in music. Other people see it as a fundamental contradiction of the elemental nature of art making. Currentzis belongs to the latter group. In Perm, an industrial city 850 miles west of Moscow, on the edge of the Ural mountains, he was able to create his own conditions and his own reality.
“There are some forms of utopian thought that have no place in Moscow. Everything revolves around money, especially things like music or love. Music is too commercialized here. In Moscow, the musician is forced to only think about how much money he’s earning and what kind of car he’s driving.”
Perm was once the center of the Russian weapons industry. Up until 1991, foreigners required a special visa to visit. Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballet Russe, was born there. The local soccer team is called Amkar, its name derived the Russian for ammonia and carbamide, the main products of Perm’s large fertilizer factory. At the beginning of the 21st century, Perm was supposed to become ground zero of a Russian cultural miracle. A liberal governor named Oleg Chirkunov imported enigmatic and eccentric curators from Moscow, and with them, avant-garde art. One of his imports was Currentzis, who arrived in 2011 from Novosibirsk, where he had worked as the director of Russia’s third largest opera house and already established a reputation as a rising star. In Perm, he was graced with the artistic freedom (and the budget) to make music under his preferred conditions. “No other country would have allowed him that,” the Russian composer Sergej Newski told me. Newski met Currentzis in 2005, at the Territory Festival in Moscow. At the time, Currentzis was barely known outside of Russia.
When Currentzis came to Perm the city already had an opera orchestra. Instead of working with that group, he imported his own ensemble from Novosibirsk. MusicAeterna was formed by top music students from around the country that he handpicked. They were fellow believers; he knew that they would also seem themselves as selfless servants of art. “Currentzis gets results that other ensembles are capable of, too. The difference is how far they’re willing to go,” Sadler, the trumpet player, said. By way of example, he cited a recent collaboration between the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the MusicAeterna choir: “Other top choirs sing pristine Bach Motets or do massive versions of Mahler’s Second. But they aren’t willing to go that extra step and scream when necessary.”
For a concert of Bach in Cologne, the musicians of MusicAeterna put on matching frocks, like monks. Before singing, they scurried through the catacombs of the hall. They like to refer to themselves as a “brotherhood.” They mean this literally.
In a video documentary, Currentzis has said that “you can’t put together a group of partisans in a country’s capital. You need to go elsewhere for that.” That’s his hubris talking again. He sees his group as a gang of noble bandits, fighting bravely and hopelessly against the international classical music industry and the philistine Russian political class. It’s a tack he often takes in arguments with the authorities. He had been promised a new building for the Theatre in Perm, but it was endlessly delayed. In situations like this, he considers not just his audience to be on his side, but also all the great icons of Russian cultural history. “We believe in a Russia not of the Ministry of Culture, but of Bulgakov and Malevich,” he told me in a phone interview. “[Culture] Minister Medinsky doesn’t value Malevich, but we do. To simplify, that’s the most importance difference between us. Malevich. And no one can stop us.”
“When I got Russian citizenship, I became a fellow citizen of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Malevich, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Lotman, Melnikov, Brodski, and Batagov. That’s the Russia I’m talking about, not the Russia of Channel One or NTV.”
(In Esquire Russia)
The influx of contemporary culture to Perm left as quickly as it came. The director of the Museum for Contemporary Art, Marat Gelman, was relieved of his duties in 2013. Along with former Governor Chirkunov, he plans to open a new museum in the South of France. “Perm is defined these days not by what it is, but by what it was supposed to be by now and isn’t,” the New York Times reported recently. Currentzis is still there, though, his work supported by a few oligarchs and companies from the region. “In Perm, we have a certain path, of changing the direction—the electricity—of art in Russia,” Currentzis told me. “We understand that the capitals are very slow and inflexible, so we need to create another center where we have the flexibility to move.” Of course, the hype around Currentzis has been going on for 13 years in Russia, where he’s attained an aura of invincibility. When he plays a concert in Moscow, the tickets go for hundreds of dollars, and rows of Maybachs park outside the hall.
MusicAeterna’s uncompromising dedication to Currentzis has raised hackles in the West. Terms like “sect,” “drillmaster,” and “dictatorship” are used. But, Sadler said of his work with the MCO, “when he has the feeling that the atmosphere is right, he’s more willing to compromise than lots of other conductors. I find a lot of what’s said about him in the media unfair. He’s portrayed as this charismatic dictator. But we really don’t see him that way.” Other maestros are bigger divas, and many who cultivate approachable images are more ruthless in real life. Elzbieta Szymanska-Čonka, a violinist in the Wiener Symphoniker, recently played in a long orchestral tour with Currentzis. “He’s famous for being weird. There are a lot of rumors flying around among musicians that it’s hard to work with him. We were all expecting it. And then we were all the more surprised when we realized that the exact opposite was true,” she told me.
“He’s not fixated on the first stand,” Szymanska-Čonka said. “A lot of conductors rely on the first stand to carry their message to the others. With him, you get the feeling that he sees everybody in the group.” So what makes Currentzis special is that he doesn’t see his orchestras as some amorphous mass; he can summon concrete imagery; he gestures freely, sings aloud, rehearses meticulously, knows what he wants, isn’t afraid of the musicians and what they might have to say. “Aren’t all conductors like that?,” someone who isn’t familiar with the classical music business might ask. When musicians gush about playing in Perm with Currentzis, they are making a de facto statement about what’s missing everywhere else. The conductor’s idealism shows the rest of the culture in a deeply unflattering light. “What he does is the only real way to do it,” the German conductor Joana Mallwitz said. Other internationally active musicians told me that rehearsing with Currentzis “wouldn’t suit most of [their] colleagues at all.”
“When I started MusicAeterna, I was looking for the best of the best, but I was also looking for fellow-travelers. The kind of people who wouldn’t leave the rehearsal as soon as the bell had rung and then go about their business. I needed people who thought about music day and night, even if that meant that they played a little less precise and strict than their colleagues: indifferent technicians.”
Recently, the SWR Symphonieorchester, a publicly funded radio orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany, announced that Currentzis would become its new music director from the 2018-19 season. It was a surprising choice. That orchestra is the product of a controversial cost-cutting measure to combine two much-beloved, formerly separate orchestras. Primarily associated with depleted cultural funding, it doesn’t have much of a history or soul—yet. In fact, maybe that’s why it appealed to Currentzis. He’ll be able to build something up without needing to break anything down: tabula rasa again. In 2013, he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg, and ran headlong into a wall. One Viennese musician told me, “Here, everybody thinks they know how to play their holy Mozart. His ideas were simply too eccentric. People don’t like it when you stamp all over certain traditions. You can’t take a holy picture and smash it on the ground.” “Teo’s style doesn’t work everywhere. He needs to be able to interact directly with the musicians,” the hornist Christian Binde said. “But most orchestras are used to a very distanced, professional relationship.”
I asked Currentzis what he’s learned from guest conducting with other orchestras. When he faces resistance, what does he do? “You have two choices: either you don’t continue, or you continue to be open and they change, maybe not immediately, but after a while—you pull them to your side like a magnet,” he answered. “Music is an expedition to discover a new land. You need open people to do that. If you think you know what you’re doing [already], you’re just reproducing. If you know what ingredients are in the perfume, you’re just recreating the perfume. But the point is not to recreate, it’s to discover.”
The music directorship of the SWR Symphonieorchester is still a risk for Currentzis. What will he do when faced with the bureaucratic mechanisms built into the German publicly-funded orchestra system, which are, to put it mildly, not very conducive to change? It’s a system where “that’s not possible” or “we’ve always done it this way” are part of the musicians’ DNA and their understanding of what “tradition” means. The orchestras in that apparatus know they’re good, and they have a tendency to rest on their laurels, becoming lazy and lethargic. “For us, it’s disrespectful to the musicians when a rehearsal goes on 15 minutes longer than planned. In Perm, it’s considered disrespectful to Mozart or Tchaikovsky if you stop 15 minutes before the piece is ready,” Sadler told me.
In the documentary film, a MusicAeterna musician said, “When you swim against the current, you get tired quickly.” Will Currentzis’s feverish idealism be dampened by the classical music establishment? Or will he infect the German system with the will to do things in a different way? “When he’s on the podium, after 10 minutes you know that you can’t just sit there and play your service as you normally would,” the violinist Szymanska-Čonka said. “You realize, this is someone who’s thinking differently, he wants to mix things up, turn them inside out. He’s searching for a way to make his enthusiasm contagious. Sometimes we end up playing a little statically, and he made us play like a youth orchestra.” Kopatchinskaja said, “We need more argumentative, hot-headed musicians, such as Currentzis.”
“Every day, I try to destroy the towers that I build—even the ones around myself. It’s incredibly important to destroy your own mythology.”
“Our culture is obsessed by real events because we experience hardly any,” wrote David Shields in his book Reality Hunger. In mainstream classical music, the events—concerts—are more or less static. So we’ve become obsessed with authenticity. But the more loaded the discussion around authenticity becomes, the clearer it is that something in our understanding of the term isn’t quite right.
A large part of the hype around Currentzis comes from the vague feeling that he actually might be the real deal, and not just a financially comfortable adult postulating about artistic passion. He really could be serious about the whole “artistic existence” thing. He was an ex-Goth punk and an anarchist. He dances to the Dead Kennedys, makes his own perfume, wears mesh skirts, plateau shoes, mascara. Mozart, Paganini, and Schubert lived eccentric lives, but these days, musicians are easily surpassed in weirdness by film directors, even politicians. Marketing hype aside, people project the things they’re missing onto Currentzis. “My musicians and I come across a bit like nudists in a musical system where everyone is all dressed up,” he has said. His star shines so brightly because there are so few other bright stars in the sky.
Many people in classical music find Currentzis’s eccentricity tacky. Some think he’s little more than a calculating poseur. A Telegraph profile from 2005 quoted him saying “I am going to save classical music. Give me five or 10 years. You’ll see,” a statement which continues to be cited bitterly even now. But isn’t calculating your effect on the audience kind of the point of art? Weren’t most great artists, on some level, posturing? Even the people who can’t stand Currentzis admit that he’s a substantial artist with innate musicality and a strong work ethic. The question shouldn’t be whether what he’s doing is spontaneous and “real” or calculated and strategic. It should be, “What does he do to his listeners?”
“I’m a romantic. But not in the sense of words like ‘landscape,’ ‘coastline,’ ‘sweetheart.’ ” My sense of romanticism is more sublime. Wild cats that hop onto a piano, wild plants that smell like incense—a bit like Baudelaire.”
Sergei Parajanov’s film “The Color of Pomegranates” is one of Currentzis’s favorites. It uses symbolic imagery to portray the life of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova. Found images of a time long past linger like a sensuous daydream: ruins of Orthodox monasteries, archaic rituals, monks, saints, battles, angles. It’s a stylized world that has inspired Currentzis deeply. “With music, he built himself an ideal Russia,” the composer Sergej Newski told me. In an interview with the Russian edition of Esquire, Currentzis said, “When I first came to Russia [in 1994], I was happy. It was a world where the romantic spirit was alive and well. …If the West explained sex as a result of the interplay of hormones, then here, they think it comes from angels. So I stayed.” He seems like he’s from another time: a mixture of Ian Curtis, Lord Byron, Tarkovsky, Marilyn Manson, Oscar Wilde, Werther, the Great Gatsby, Guru, or a character from a Tim Burton film. One thing’s for sure, though: he’s the anti-Valery Gergiev. It’s very hard to imagine him appearing in an advertisement for the Russian oil conglomerate Gazprom.
When you look at Currentzis the human being, the hyperbole fades away a bit. Unlike the Byronic hero, Currentzis is not a solitary fighter. Unlike Lermontov’s “superfluous man,” he’s not a powerless observer. That’s one reason why the Mahler Chamber Orchestra decided to engage him as an Artistic Partner, “because he likes to collaborate with people who have similar ideas,” as Sadler explained. Kopatchinskaja, Isabelle Faust, and Alexander Melnikov are mainstream musicians who work with him often. And Currentzis has the fundamentals: a good ear for vocal talent and an ability to get musicians to play in homogeneous ensemble. He doesn’t wait for an artist to become famous before engaging them for his next recording. His Mozart discs contrast with, say, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s, who recorded Mozart around the same time and chose to work with superstars. He used to promise a lot and deliver less, but he’s improved. He’s loyal to his people, he doesn’t let musicians run aground or destroy careers.
What’s next? “Two years ago, I thought he was going to become a normal star conductor. A lot of people were worried that he’d become a little like Carlos Kleiber, someone who focuses on an extremely narrow repertoire. But it’s been just the opposite, luckily. I’m optimistic that we’ll continue to experience different facets of his work,” Newski told me. Currentzis has returned to new music in the last three years, and presenters continue to be interested in those programs.
He is connected to the music of Grisey, Xenakis, Vivier, and Christou, whose “Anaparastasis I” and “Anaparastasis III” he premiered in Russia in 2011. For the 2006 Territory Festival in Moscow, he curated programs of Kourliandski, Scelsi, Pärt, and Jan Christou, alongside Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.” That’s one area of common ground with the SWR Symphonieorchester, both of whose predecessors had rich traditions in contemporary music.
In Perm, Currentzis lives about an hour outside the city center, in a large wooden house near a forest. That house, and MusicAeterna, will remain places for him to withdraw and recover. “In the future, I hope to create a musical monastery. I need to find some ruins somewhere,” he told me. “A place that is out of communication a little bit, where artists from around the world can live in peace, making music and meditating. And sometimes going to the cities to play. And then we’ll come home.”
In his provincial town, says Andrei towards the end of Chekov’s play “The Three Sisters,” “there has never been, now or at any other time, a single leader of men, a single scholar, an artist, a man of even the slightest eminence who might arouse envy or a passionate desire to be emulated. They only drink, sleep, and then they die…more people are born and also eat, drink, sleep, and so as not to become half-witted out of sheer boredom, they try to make life many-sided with their beastly back-biting, vodka, cards, and litigation.” When writing, Chekov likely had Perm in mind. Now, the town near the Ural Mountains arouses passion and envy. It has its eminence, its artist. ¶