sat 18/08/2018

Interview: Teodor Currentzis Conducting Dido in Siberia | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Teodor Currentzis Conducting Dido in Siberia

Interview: Teodor Currentzis Conducting Dido in Siberia

Teodor Currentzis says he will save classical music.

You may have your favourite version of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and a front-runner in many lists will be William Christie’s version with Les Arts Florissants (Christie will be performing it again with them this Saturday at the Barbican). But easily the most memorable one I have ever heard was conducted by Teodor Currentzis. In Siberia.

Currentzis, whose career trajectory seems to have been vertical, is someone who completely polarises critics. I met the conductor in a  basement restaurant in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. We were only on the starter, borshch-like soup with unnamed meat floating about, and first glass of wine - so you can't blame the alcohol - when I ask Currentzis whether he feels he is on a mission. "Of course I am," he says. "I am going to save classical music. Give me five or 10 years. You'll see."

In normal circumstances, you'd call the 36-year-old delusional. Arrogant, certainly. But having seen this Greek-born maestro conducting his Dido and Aeneas with his new Musica Aeterna Ensemble that afternoon, I felt he might just prove true to his word. He made Christie’s version seemed overly mannered and rather knowing – here was Purcell as sweet soul music, as if written yesterday.

Partly, no doubt, it was the unexpectedness of hearing such world-class music in Siberia at all that made the performance so vivid - most people would think of endless snow, gulags, the odd tiger or shaman on the horizon. But Novosibirsk has the second largest opera house in the world, after Sydney's, and there has been a stream of world-renowned musicians from its conservatories, such as violinists Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin.

currentzis_candlesCurrentzis trawled through more than 40 music schools in Siberia in search of candidates for his young chamber orchestra. "I was looking for technical excellence, of course," he says, "but also open-heartedness and the right spirit too." He organises poetry readings of Rilke or Celan, and shows Derek Jarman films to "open their minds." Often, they "sleep all the night in the theatre."

More rigorous critics might point to the ensemble's rawness, the cheap instruments, the liberties with accepted time signatures. But I was thrilled by the esprit de corps Currentzis has built.

As he put it, “Foreign orchestras have better pitch, better winds and are more precise. But they don't put as much heart into the music; they're more like robots. Russians are lazier and have lower standards of music education, but they're more talented. They can do things that good European orchestras can't. European orchestras may play Tchaikovsky more cleanly, but it's dead. My task is to build an orchestra that plays with better pitch, which plays with precision and is spontaneous at the same time - an orchestra that can represent Russia with honor in the worldwide market."

Mark Hildrew, a director of the Askonas Holt agency that represents many of the world's leading conductors and has been involved in Russian music for 20 years, believes his Dido was "the best performance of baroque music I've seen in Russia". But, he adds, "It may be too early to judge if Currentzis is as good as he thinks he is." When Currentzis met Hildrew for tea in Moscow - a potential career boost - the younger man spent half the time being rude about artists Hildrew's firm represented. (He eventually signed to the IMG Agency.)

When I mention that I admire the world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming, Currentzis drawls in his unique Russian-Greek accent, "When I hear her, I always imagine I am being propositioned in a jacuzzi." Maxim Vengerov? "He is good technically." Talk about damning with faint praise.

Currentzis also had, by his own account, a spectacular falling out with Russia's best-known conductor, Valery Gergiev, while working briefly at the Mariinsky Theatre - although it's not hard to imagine two such driven individuals clashing.

He conducted fellow enfant terrible Dmitry Chernyakov's production of Aida at the Kremlin Palace, and got some of the worst reviews I've ever seen. The Opera Critic said, "It starts worse than you could possibly imagine - and goes downhill from there." Currentzis, it was claimed, "produced the most vulgar and revolting sounds he could manage… utter garbage."

The Russian daily Kommersant, though, said Currentzis "has raised the musical standards of the Russian theatre by some levels". Vedomosti talked of him as a "strange, unaccommodating but super-talented maestro". The production went on to win four of Russia's most prestigious theatrical awards, the Golden Masks. Currentzis also sometimes gets mobbed like a rock star - even in Bangkok.

His career has begun to go into overdrive. Following his successful debut at Paris Opera in 2008 - “Makes a strong impression… consistently vivid and arresting,” considered the New York Times - he returned this season with a production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Upcoming opera engagements include debuts at Baden-Baden with Carmen and the Balthasar-Neumann Choir and Orchestra, the Moscow Bolshoi with Berg’s Wozzek, followed by dates at the Zurich Opera and Madrid Opera, and a planned engagement with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He has conducted all of the major Russian orchestras. He’s also started the Territoria Modern Art Festival – a new annual music festival in Moscow.

When asked why he had split up with his ballerina wife he says, "I guess two crazy geniuses can't live together." Certainly, he looks the part of the charismatic Byronic hero - tall, thin, with flowing dark locks - and has no shortage of female admirers. He is in no doubt that "Russian women really are something extraordinary."

I found him a fascinating mix between a self-described mystic, who spent time in monasteries in his native Greece, and what he calls an "anarchist narcissist". "Teodor knows lots of girls are in love with him," said a female student I talked to, "and he loves it."

While many attempts to lure young people to classical music and opera end up being patronising, a glamorous, ambitious and fundamentally serious figure such as Currentzis seems more likely to succeed. His generation is open to all kinds of sounds, from rock to world music. His tastes in pop, for example, are fabulously obscure - he admires Nurse With Wound, Sixties band Pearls Before Swine, and makes pronouncements such as "I liked Joy Division when they were Warsaw [the band's earliest incarnation]."

In his youth, Currentzis was in a band he describes as "industrial new romantic". But he has a sound classical pedigree, having spent five years training with the great Russian teacher Ilya Musin, who also taught Gergiev and Yuri Temirkanov of the St Petersburg Philharmonic. In an interview, Musin is said to have claimed that while he has had talented pupils, Currentzis was the only genius - a quote he brings up with relish (no doubt, partly because it winds up his nemesis Gergiev).

Currentzis objects to what he sees as the lifeless perfectionism of a lot of classical music. "Academic music," he says, "is like making love with a condom." So when he talks of "saving classical music", what does he mean? "Music should be spiritual - it has become part of the supermarket, like everything else."

The proof, ultimately, is in the music, and that evening in Novosibirsk we were treated to some wonderful stuff, such as Schnittke's Choir Concerto, based on a work by a 10th-century Armenian monk. There were times I wanted to laugh at his audacity, and others when I was moved by the sheer unexpected beauty of what I was hearing.

If his narcissism doesn't get the better of him, Currentzis could be one of those rare artists capable of shifting the ground of his chosen art, and pulling off something extraordinary - perhaps even miraculous.

  • William Christie and Les Arts Florissants perform Dido and Aeneas at the Barbican this Saturday.
  • Forthcoming Teodor Currentzis performances here.
Teodor knows lots of girls are in love with him and he loves it

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