New East Digital Archive

Teodor Currentzis: the Greek-born classical music iconoclast making magic in the Urals

Born in Athens and trained in Russia, Teodor Currentzis has been described as “the conducting equivalent of Glenn Gould morphed with Kurt Cobain.” Joshua Yaffa visited the maestro in his self-imposed “exile” in Perm, where he and his musicAeterna ensemble are rewriting the rules of classical music.

25 July 2017

Teodor Currentzis, the artistic director of the Perm Theatre of Opera and Ballet, keeps an office on the theatre’s belle étage, a compact space made all the more intimate by the dense musk of perfume and the dark tones of the velvet couch and heavy carpets. The room has the air, entirely intentional, of the sacred: an Orthodox icon hangs on one wall, watching over the proceedings, and the scent that wafts out of the room is reminiscent of the woody and dank interiors of a Russian church. The office is at once a sanctuary for Currentzis and his reception hall, a place where old friends and fellow musicians and admirers — there are plenty of them in Perm — come after a concert to share a word or a compliment with the maestro.

I made my way to the office one evening in May, just before the final rehearsal for Mozart’s Requiem, which Currentzis and his musicAeterna orchestra would be performing the next night in Perm. Currentzis is an ambitious and knowingly iconoclastic figure in contemporary classic music, intent on breaking through the public imagination of what such music can be. He is a widely revered conductor and musical director, a star not only in Russia but also increasingly on the most high-profile stages in Europe. Born in Athens, Currentzis moved to St Petersburg when he was 22 years old. He studied music at the city’s famed conservatory with Ilya Musin, the patriarch of Russian conductors over the last half-century, who trained everyone from Valery Gergiev, director of the Mariinsky Theatre, to Semyon Bychkov, who has conducted in Berlin, New York, Paris and Vienna.

In 2004, Currentzis was named director of the opera and ballet in Novosibirsk, and in 2011, at the height of what would come to be known as Perm’s “cultural revolution”, he moved to the city of just under a million people near the Ural Mountains. He brought the entirety of the musicAeterna orchestra with him, which he had founded some years earlier, as much a cult or like-minded brotherhood as a professional musical ensemble. Currentzis, who is 45, looks less like a fusty, professorial classical musician than the moody and charismatic lead singer of an indie-rock band, with long black hair that falls in front of his face and a regular uniform of tight black jeans and leather boots.

Currentzis has said his mission is to make classical music a relevant and understandable artistic language for the current day, while returning to pieces that can feel beautifully and enigmatically ancient — Requiem among them, having been written under a cloud of mystery in the 1790s, begun by Mozart as a commission for an eccentric count and finished by other composers after his death. “If you want to open the door to the eternal, you have to be present in the here and now,” Currentzis told me. “It may sound like a paradox, but it’s absolutely true: you have to be here, part of the moment, a conscious participant in life — and that’s what makes you part of this eternal link.”

Currentzis builds this bridge between the quotidian inner world of the listener and the timeless portal offered by the music itself through an entire architecture of exploration and discussion in which the concert is only one part. In Perm, Currentzis holds a series of open workshops, during which he explains the history of the piece he and musicAeterna are preparing, offering his own thoughts on its meaning and context, while encouraging those in the audience to ask questions and offer thoughts.

“If you want to open the door to the eternal, you have to be present in the here and now, part of the moment, a conscious participant in life”

A few days before the Requiem concert, I went to one of these workshops. It was held late on a Tuesday night, but the hall was packed with several hundred people. “I am a lonely person,” Currentzis told the audience, perhaps with false modesty, explaining why the gatherings are as important to him as to those in attendance. The discussion lasted until nearly one in the morning, and meandered from a dissection of Requiem’s most famous movement (the mournful “Lacrimosa”) to Currentzis’ thoughts on how to raise a cultured child: “Parents put their kids in front of the television and have them watch Channel One, and then no surprise, they end up with a Channel One kid.”

No less important than these workshops, Currentzis and Vitaly Polonsky, his longtime collaborator and the vocal director of musicAeterna, insist on making their rehearsals in Perm open to the public, encouraging anyone who is interested to sit and watch as they spend hours going over and over individual passages. For Currentzis, it is the communal educational aspect that he has built around the theatre — the workshops, public rehearsals, days when the Perm theatre opens its doors for anyone who wants to bang on some drums or blow into a flute — that offers the most promising space for creative experimentation. There is only so much you can, or should, do in interpreting Mozart’s musical notes, but what you can do with the audience experience outside of the performance itself is essentially an unexplored and limitless question. At the late-night workshop before Requiem, Polonsky offered a theory: over many hours of rehearsal, an observer in the hall is turned from a viewer into a kind of participant, whose active engagement is required for the whole enterprise to be a success.

“The future of music is the intellectual evolution of the audience,” Currentzis told me. “If you sit and listen to a Wagner opera that you don’t know already, you will be interested for ten minutes, and then you will find it really boring, you won’t understand anything. You have to listen to a piece a hundred times to understand it. But this is hard work, it’s practically impossible. But if I take you to my rehearsal, I will play this phrase a hundred times, I will teach you this phrase. And when you hear this phrase in concert, you know what it means, it becomes another piece of music entirely.”

“The future of music is the intellectual evolution of the audience”

Currentzis is a notorious perfectionist. In the winter of 2015, a documentary crew from Deutsche Welle came to Perm and filmed as Currentzis and musicAeterna recorded Mozart’s Don Giovanni for Sony Classical. Sessions stretched on for ten or twelve hours, with Currentzis insisting on take after take from performers, long past when other orchestras would have declared a particular movement good enough. “The artistic demands are very intense,” Kenneth Tarver, a tenor who sang the role of Don Ottavio, says in the Deutsche Welle film. “And it’s only enjoyable if you have the ability to meet the demands the artistic requests.”

The whole thing was made all the more extravagant by the fact that this was the second time Currentzis and his orchestra had hunkered down to record Don Giovanni: they had made their way through a complete session in 2014, only for Currentzis to decide that he wasn’t satisfied with the result, and then convinced executives at Sony to finance a completely fresh recording from scratch. “I’ve come to trust him enough to know that such decisions aren’t arbitrary,” Bogdan Roscic, the president of Sony Classical, told the Deutsche Welle filmmakers. “I wasn’t amused, but I grit my teeth and rescheduled the whole thing again.”

The result, which was released last November, is a stunning and vibrant recording that makes Mozart sound no less fierce and of the moment than the boldest pop music being produced today. Don Giovanni is the last in a cycle of three Mozart operas — after Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro — Currentzis and musicAeterna recorded for Sony, a series that brought Currentzis wider acclaim for his vital, energetic and, at times, experimental conducting style. Writing in The Guardian, the British pianist James Rhode called Currentzis the “conducting equivalent of Glenn Gould morphed with Kurt Cobain.” Rhode declared of Currentzis recordings of Mozart: “His conception of these works is so grand, so life-affirming and life-changing, so far beyond anything that has come before it that it has, for me, redefined music itself. This is classical music breaking the four-minute mile […] the sheer, visceral, driving energy, the humour, pathos, romance, verve, face-punching force of it all is overwhelming.”

The city of Perm provides what Currentzis has alternatively called an ideal “laboratory,” “sanctuary,” or “monastery” for that kind of unbothered and painstaking experimentation. Perm is a rather isolated and industrial place — in Soviet times, it was a closed city due to its munitions factories — but with a rich cultural and musical history. In 1941, the Kirov Theatre — now the Mariinsky — was evacuated from besieged Leningrad to Perm. The arrival of Leningrad’s choreography academy led to the creation of the Perm Ballet School, which went on to international fame. After the war, many artists and their families stayed, and even as foreigners and Soviet citizens were kept out, Perm became a centre of music and dance.

That history was purposefully evoked in 2008, when the Perm region’s then-governor embarked on a program of innovative artistic programming that would be dubbed the Perm “cultural revolution.” Cultural figures from all over Russia came to Perm to launch new projects, among them Marat Guelman, the Moscow curator and gallery owner, who was put in charge of the newly opened Perm Museum of Contemporary Art. Innovative projects in theatre, public sculpture and design cropped up all over town. Currentzis arrived as part of this wave — and is the last figure of the period to remain. Guelman came under pressure to step down and left Perm in 2013; over time, the “cultural revolution” was reduced to a nostalgic memory as the Russian state — in Perm as in the country as a whole — elevated more conservative, reactionary values.

When I asked Currentzis about this legacy, and his role as essentially the only figure still around in Perm from this short-lived avant-garde era, he spoke of the idea of revolution in humanistic terms, more individual than systemic. “For me the idea of revolution is about opening a person’s imagination, to break your guilt, to become a better person in how you communicate with others,” he said. “The idea of a better world is our own personal story. We cannot change stupid politics. But we can change ourselves, and thus our environment — and that is already something.”

For now, Currentzis says he is left alone with his orchestra to create musical works as he sees fit. Surely his growing international renown gives him an additional measure of protection from state bureaucrats or cultural figures who might find his experimental tastes confusing or somehow threatening. “I’m a very happy person, and also very privileged, because no one has ever touched me,” he told me. But Currentzis is not oblivious to the fact that contemporary art and culture can face great institutional pressure in today’s Russia. “I see some things happening around me that make me really sad,” he said. “Somebody started to think in the Soviet way, that some art is against Russian ideology, this art is good, that art is bad. It’s rubbish: people need the lessons of history and a good psychiatrist.”

When we spoke, Currentzis referred to himself as a “Russian” musician, and spoke of Perm as home. He said that Perm, by virtue of its geographic and cultural remove, provides the “opportunity to create alternative solutions to problems — what you simply cannot do in Moscow or St Petersburg.” He has turned down opportunities to move to either place and take over established orchestras there — it would be too hard to upend the legacy of tradition and inertia in the big city companies. “I don’t want to fight with people, I want to work with people who have the same dreams as me,” he said. “For much of my life, I was the crazy person of the village,” he added, laughing. Now that he and the city of Perm are in a kind of running creative and intellectual dialogue, he doesn’t want to start over.

“I don’t want to fight with people, I want to work with people who have the same dreams as me. For much of my life, I was the crazy person of the village”

The next evening, I returned to the opera theatre for the performance of Requiem. The concert felt like a lucky, almost magical discovery: I had paid 2,500 roubles ($40) for an orchestra ticket in Perm; resellers in Moscow were offering seats for 50,000 roubles, ($850) for the concert two nights later. Currentzis is a vibrant and physical conductor, and as he began Requiem, he was practically dancing across the stage in some parts, singing along at others. The music was mournful, laced with the beguiling unknowability of loss, yet propulsive and dynamic, pulsing with a sense of life and possibility. The musicAeterna choir evoked the timelessness of church and faith; the power of the orchestra’s strings and percussion brought me back to earth. I felt like borrowing from Currentzis and dancing myself. As the piece drew to its climax, the voices on stage blended with the drums and violins, turning Mozart’s notes into a wave of sound, enveloping the audience with ferocious energy, at once frothy and invigorating. The ovation went on for minutes.

After the performance, I went up to Currentzis’s office. The hallway outside his door was comically full with beautiful, exquisitely made-up women who had come to gush their praise to the maestro. Inside, Currentzis held court from a velvet couch, listening with interest as visitors told him of their reactions to the performance, and posing for photographs with whomever asked. I sat down and asked whether he thought Requiem, initially commissioned to accompany the dead wife of an Austrian noble into the afterlife, was a piece of mourning or celebration. “There is a certain sadness there,” he told me. “But the piece is ultimately about hope, of moving toward the light, of turning loss into something positive, into something beautiful.” I left around nine in the evening, but Currentzis would stay for several more hours, drinking wine and inviting in more guests, talking about music and art and all he finds mysterious and compelling in Russia, which, as he had told me earlier, he considers less a place than an idea.

Image credits, in order: Aleksey Gushchin, Anton Zavjyalov, Perm Opera Ballet Theatre/Youtube, semeonka, Nikita Chuntomov