Disrupting Classical Music: The Eccentric

In classical music, few people are as disruptive as the Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis. He is a thorn in the side of an industry caught up in rituals and routines, where excuses frequently masquerade as traditions. What is different about Teodor Currentzis?

For some, he is a saviour, the future of classical music. For others, he arouses deep suspicion. An ex-goth, an anarchist who dances to the Dead Kennedys, who wears mascara and Doc Martens with red laces and created his own perfume… Currentzis is probably a charlatan. Right?

Passing on euphoria

Certain music critics have already fallen into that trap. They have gone to his concerts ready to tear him apart, and left impressed. Currentzis has mastered his craft and knows what he is doing. Musicians have gone to rehearsals sceptical, aware of the hype – and left gushing. “He gives his euphoria back to the musicians, more than any other conductor,” one says. “He makes comments in rehearsal, where I’m like, wow, no one has ever put it that way before,” another adds. “Suddenly we had the energy of a youth orchestra,” says a third.

“In a dishonest world, honesty seems eccentric.”

The things that musicians and audiences treasure about Currentzis might equally form a list of things that have become nearly extinct in classical music: risk-taking, non-conformity, transcendence, imagination, authenticity. “I am honest about what I want,” Currentzis said in an interview. “In a dishonest world, honesty seems eccentric. But the others are eccentric and I am normal.”

He shines brightly because the music world is so often drab. His distaste for the standard concert ritual is palpable. He wants to give the music its immediacy back. Before one concert of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 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. “He achieves so much with the power of suggestion, his imagination takes him in so many different directions,” says a musician who often plays under him. (“I do not carry a baton. That would be like hugging a beautiful woman without setting aside your crutches,” he told Esquire Russia.) The ensemble he founded, MusicAeterna, plays standing up, so the musicians can sway with the music. He speaks about music in a personal – and occasionally grandiloquent – way. He does so because he cannot stand when people rely on jargon and expert-speak. He restores a painful urgency to warhorse pieces in the repertoire that often sound suffocated by routine.

Pushing musicians to their limits

It is no surprise that Currentzis is a confusing figure in classical music, where tradition and convention provide a cosy stasis. Busy praising its own excellence, classical music has not noticed the places where it has gotten lazy and complacent. To achieve Currentzis’ goals, musicians need to be prepared for a different kind of work. They have to dedicate themselves completely to the art.

"I need the kind of people who would not leave the rehearsal as soon as the bell had rung.”

At times, he has recorded through the night, bringing musicians to their limits. “For us, it is disrespectful to the musicians when a rehearsal goes on 15 minutes longer than planned. He considers it disrespectful to Mozart or Tchaikovsky if you stop 15 minutes before the piece is ready,” says a musician in his ensemble. “When he is on the podium, after ten minutes you know that you cannot just sit there and play your shift as you normally would,” adds a violinist. “You realize this is someone who is thinking differently, he wants to mix things up, turn them inside out. He is searching for a way to make his enthusiasm contagious.”

Searching for freedom

Currentzis has shaped his career according to his own values. Born as Teodoros Kurentzis in 1972 in Athens, he studied conducting at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the legendary teacher Ilya Musin. Either returning to the West or assisting with one of the larger orchestras in St. Petersburg or Moscow would have been a logical next step. Instead, he moved to Novosibirsk in Siberia, in 2004. The city claims Russia’s third-largest opera house, but it is very, very far from the centres of the classical music world where musicians go to make their names. For his kind of music making, Currentzis needed a place where he would not be forced to make compromises. In 2011, he moved on to Perm, in the Ural Mountains. There, too, he was given the freedom he needed and, with the help of local oligarchs, the budget to make his vision real. It is difficult to imagine another city in the world where this would have been possible.

Robin Hood’s band of merry thieves

His ensemble MusicAeterna has been with him since the Novosibirsk years. He gathered a group of the best students from Russia’s conservatories to form a collective with a similar understanding of art. They often refer to themselves as a brotherhood.

You cannot put together a group of partisans in a country’s capital. You need to go elsewhere for that.

Author: Teodor Currentzis

He sees his group a bit like Robin Hood’s band of merry thieves, free from the constraints of the classical music world and Russia’s internal politics. It would be possible to get similar results from other orchestras, too. However, those groups do not often have the willingness to do what is necessary: to exhaust their potential, go to the limit, reveal vulnerabilities. “My musicians and I come across a bit like nudists in a musical system where everyone is all dressed up,” he says. Currentzis has managed to turn Perm, the city on the edge of Europe, into something mythical, desired – an idea. “What he does is the only real way to do it,” the German conductor Joana Mallwitz says.

Swimming against the current

In Russia, Currentzis has been hyped for 15 years now. When he plays concerts in Moscow, at the Zaryadye Concert Hall, among others, the tickets go for several hundred euros, and the guests arrive in Maybachs. His rise in the West has been quick. He is now part of the classical music jet set. With MusicAeterna, he has played in Europe’s leading concert halls. This season, he is an artist-in-residence at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, with MusicAeterna, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and the newly formed SWR Symphonieorchester, based in Stuttgart, where he took over the music directorship in 2018. In the past, he has struggled with the environment of a publicly funded institution: too much routine, too many rules and boundaries. It will be fascinating to see how he acclimatizes in Stuttgart. “When you swim against the current, you get tired quickly,” says a MusicAeterna musician. Will Currentzis’ feverish passion for music be ruined by the complacency of the classical music establishment? Or will he rather infect the respectable old institutions with his energy desire? In one 2005 interview, he said, “I am going to save classical music. Give me five or ten years. You’ll see.” That might not be necessary. He has already made it a more dynamic place.

(image credits: http://www.teodor-currentzis.com/index.php/photo-gallery/) 

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