Savior or Charlatan? A Punk Maestro Jolts Classical Music

Savior or Charlatan? A Punk Maestro Jolts Classical Music


PERM, Russia — It was after midnight when the maestro — wearing a black motorcycle jacket, skinny jeans and boots — strode into a cavernous old factory in this industrial city 700 miles east of Moscow. He made his way through the crowd as something between an avant-garde happening and a classical-music rave unfolded.

“Come,” the conductor, Teodor Currentzis, who will make his American debut in November leading Verdi’s Requiem at the Shed in New York, told a reporter. “I want to show you something amazing.”

Soon the room exploded with propulsive percussion works by Iannis Xenakis. When the drums grew quiet, Mr. Currentzis — who had conducted Mahler’s sprawling Ninth Symphony the night before and had spent all day rehearsing Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” — followed the crowd out into the moonlight to an even older part of the plant with creaky wooden floors, where a puzzling blend of modern dance; a stage buried in laundry; long Russian monologues; and a Dr. Seuss-like wind instrument stretched into the wee hours.

It was a night that embodied the status of Mr. Currentzis, 47, as the rebel maestro of classical music. Tall, lanky and boyish, with pierced ears and dark hair, he looks more CBGB than Carnegie Hall. He has been described as a punk, a goth, an anarchist and a guru — all of which have elements of truth, but fail to convey the blend of talent, charisma and energy that has swept him from the periphery of the music world to its most prestigious stages.

He began that journey out in Siberia, as music director of the Novosibirsk State Opera. Disenchanted with the music establishment, he formed his own orchestra and chorus there, which he called MusicAeterna and which became known for electrically charged performances. He forged such tight bonds with its players that many followed him here when he was appointed the artistic director of the Perm State Opera in 2011.

He has an almost messianic side: A brash claim in a 2005 interview that “I will save classical music” ruffled some feathers. His emo earnestness — “You can cry alone in front of your turntable to this music. You can close your eyes and scream at the top of your lungs to this music,” he wrote in liner notes for a Rameau recording — rubs some people the wrong way. His general flamboyance still arouses suspicions in some quarters that he might be a charlatan.

But now, in spite of — or because of — his iconoclastic approach to music, he is in high demand everywhere, with a series of important debuts and a steady stream of painstakingly detailed studio recordings for Sony.

Markus Hinterhäuser, the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, said that if there had been “light skepticism” before his debut there in 2017, now “everybody’s waiting for Currentzis to appear.” At Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in Salzburg this summer, the loudest cheers by far were for him; Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times that he led the opera with “irresistible intensity.”

His unorthodox style was on vivid display here this spring at the annual Diaghilev Festival, which celebrates Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, who grew up in Perm. There were performances around the clock — including 3:30 a.m. concerts featuring the ondes martenot, an eerie early electronic instrument, in a museum full of religious sculptures, and 11 p.m. chamber performances in the house Diaghilev grew up in.

Mr. Currentzis, the festival’s artistic director, was never far from the center of things. Before opening the festival — with a double bill of Mahler’s Ninth and a work featuring typewriters as instruments by the Swedish composer Malin Bang — he held a news conference.

The smell of incense filled the room as Mr. Currentzis entered. He paused. He saw that half a dozen video cameras were arrayed in the front, blocking the seats, and waited with a smile until the bewildered videographers were cleared to the sides.

“Art is only possible,” he said, “when you see the eyes of the people in front of you.”

Musicians say that his uncompromising approach to music — he is famous for marathon rehearsals and recording sessions, and for late-night salons where guests recite poetry, play music and talk until all hours — has almost mystical effects.

“Before I do something surprising, something which surprises even me — he knows already, before me,” the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, a frequent collaborator, said in an interview. “He’s so in touch with your soul that you really feel together as one with him. There is no distance at all.”

Mr. Currentzis was born in Athens in 1972; his father was a police officer, and his mother taught piano. In his house, he recalled, the piano was “kind of part of the family.” But he fell in love with the sound of orchestras, and decided to start playing the violin — not yet realizing that the sound he craved was the whole string section.

“This thick, beautiful sound,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of this sound.”

By the time he was a teenager studying music, he knew he would conduct, but he and his brother still enjoyed listening to obscure, psychedelic 1960s music, too. Mr. Currentzis eventually went to St. Petersburg to study with Ilya Musin, a renowned pedagogue who taught Valery Gergiev and Semyon Bychkov. After what he described as his “punk attitude” caused difficulties there, he left for Moscow, where he conducted for a small opera company. That led to guest appearances in Novosibirsk, one of the major Russian houses, where he became music director in 2004.

As he started in Siberia, he founded MusicAeterna, which began as a period instrument orchestra — something still rare in Russia.

“He was so disenchanted early on with the whole official music scene, and the orchestral scene in particular — he just didn’t want to play that game at all,” recalled the arts administrator Marc de Mauny, who met him at the conservatory in St. Petersburg and has worked with him for years. “He said, ‘I’m in this for the music, to make music with like-minded people and musicians who are not going to look at their watches during rehearsal, who really want to explore repertoire.’”

Artemy Savchenko, a violinist, first performed Tchaikovsky with Mr. Currentzis in Moscow 12 years ago and decided to join MusicAeterna. “It made the biggest impression of my whole musical life,’’ he said. “I decided: If you do music, it should be this way. Otherwise, there is no point. Teodor always tried to find in the music something very, very deep that is connected with ritual and mystery.”

Unlike most American orchestras, whose contracts are exacting about rehearsal lengths and which have been known to break off midphrase rather than incur costly overtime, the MusicAeterna players tend to play for as long as Mr. Currentzis needs or wants them.

“Can you imagine Leonardo da Vinci saying, ‘O.K., I will make this machine, but only in seven hours?’” he said one evening after a rehearsal of “Idomeneo” had run, yes, long.

Sitting on a velvet sofa in his opulent studio at the Perm opera house, adorned with richly patterned crimson wallpaper, an Ezra Pound quotation and a gilded Orthodox icon, he continued: “It will take as long as it will take.”

As MusicAeterna began to flourish, Mr. Currentzis began attracting attention. In 2009, he began a cinematic odyssey: He landed the lead in “DAU,” Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s insanely ambitious (or perhaps just insane), still not-quite-finished epic film that has been described as the “Stalinist Truman Show.” Mr. Currentzis and a cast of hundreds were filmed on and off for three years living in character in a replica of Soviet Russia.

“I thought I was hard-core before that,” he said of the experience.

And he attracted the attention of Sony. Bogdan Roscic, the president of the label’s classical division, remembered him as a well-kept secret in those days, but said that buzz was already building. Mr. Roscic was so impressed by some of Mr. Currentzis’s early recordings, and the support of people like the adventurous impresario Gerard Mortier, who had hired Mr. Currentzis in Paris and Madrid, that he decided to sign him in 2011.

“Others who today pretend they invented him either told me I should stop bothering them with this guy or completely ignored us,” Mr. Roscic said in an email. “It’s funny how that goes.”

While his live performances were galvanizing, Mr. Currentzis didn’t just want his recordings to echo them, and he pushed for intricate studio work.

“Music is not created for the concert hall,” Mr. Currentzis said. “It’s a very intimate thing that you have to feel. If you listen to a symphony of Mahler in the concert hall, and then lie down in an open field and listen with your headphones, you have completely different feelings.”

Mr. Roscic said that this approach was similar to that of the pianist Glenn Gould: “He doesn’t consider recordings souvenirs of live performances, but, rather, a separate art form altogether.”

Mr. Currentzis spent hundreds of hours recording the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas for Sony. Sessions lasted from noon until after midnight here in Perm for up to two weeks straight — a grueling schedule, and one that would be ruinously expensive with a traditional orchestra. But his players were willing. And when he was unsatisfied with the “Don Giovanni,” he persuaded the label to rerecord it.

“It’s a ‘whatever it takes’ ethos,” said Mr. Roscic. “The latest post-session dinner I had with him was in his dacha at 4 a.m.”

Perm, located on the eastern edge of Europe in the foothills of the Urals, was an unlikely staging area for storming the classical music world. It is generally believed to be the provincial city that Chekhov’s three sisters long to leave for Moscow, and it was given a new literary name, Yuriatin, by Boris Pasternak, who set parts of “Doctor Zhivago” there. It was the gateway to an infamous gulag, and during the Cold War, when it produced arms, was closed to foreigners.

Mr. Currentzis was brought here in 2011 during a brief attempt to make the city a destination for cutting-edge art. He said he would only take the post if Perm officials agreed to let him bring MusicAeterna with him, and help him expand the ensemble. To his surprise, they agreed.

But it was not easy: Perm already had an opera orchestra, and no one warned them that a second group would be arriving. Its opera house had an illustrious history; during World War II the Kirov Opera and Ballet were evacuated there, and they left behind a robust ballet school with a tradition that continues to this day. But the company had to adapt to Mr. Currentzis’s new visions.

Memorable performances followed, but also difficulties. Local conservatives began to voice objections about both the art and the expense; Perm’s cultural expansion plan soon ran afoul of the Kremlin, and was dismantled. Mr. Currentzis, whose work in the opera house was so good that he drew critics here from Moscow and St. Petersburg, was the last man standing.

But as this spring’s festival unspooled, there were signs that his days, too, were numbered here. And a few weeks after the Diaghilev Festival ended, the rumored news became official: Mr. Currentzis would step down from the Perm Opera in September, though he would continue to lead the Diaghilev Festival, with an eye toward bringing some of its programming to Paris in the coming years. MusicAeterna would move on with him.

Now the test will be whether Mr. Currentzis can retain his outsider approach when he leaves Perm for a more cosmopolitan base, probably in St. Petersburg.

“He found this place in Siberia, and then in Perm, where he had the freedom to develop,” said Michael Haefliger, the intendant of the Lucerne Festival, where Mr. Currentzis is leading MusicAeterna in several Mozart operas this month.

He has already been trying new things. He recently became chief conductor of the SWR Symphony Orchestra, a German radio orchestra based in Stuttgart. He writes poetry and wants to spend more time composing. And he said that while he had demurred when approached about conducting Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the Bayreuth Festival — he was booked — he hoped to tackle the work at some point, if he could get a year to prepare. (“A Wagner sabbatical,” he said.)

Change was already in the air the night he conducted “Idomeneo” at the opera house in Perm in May.

After the crowds left the theater, the house lights were turned off, candles were lit, and tables were set out with bottles of wine and vodka for a party with the orchestra. Musicians who had just performed played chamber music. Some recited poetry. After midnight, the sci-fi sounds of the ondes martenot wafted down from a balcony.

Near the end of the party, Mr. Currentzis rose to make what sounded like a farewell toast.

“The musical world doesn’t develop as it could,” he said. “We ask, for example, where are the soloists that were around in the ’20s and ’30s? The fantastic composers of the 19th century, where are they now? What’s happened to mankind? The truth is they’re all here. But the system is such that they cannot appear.”

And he spoke passionately of the need to do things differently.

“This is what we do here in Perm: We open up a new space,” he said. “We open these gates, and that’s a reason, maybe, people come here now — not to visit the monuments or museums, but because they know there’s a space where they can maybe discover themselves and what they’re capable of. And we will do this every day, until the very last day that we are here.”

Then more late-night music filled the darkened opera house.



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