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Teodor Currentzis: The controversial Maestro

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“Half a year after the outbreak of war,” explained the director of the Cologne Philharmonic, Louwrens Langevoort, “an attitude towards the political situation should be recognizable.” Conductor Teodor Currentzis was addressed. “The activities and financing of his ensembles MusicAeterna and Utopia suggest that he is very close to the Russian regime,” wrote Langevorrt and drew a conclusion: he canceled the Currentzis concert with the SWR Orchestra next January.

Shortly before Teodor Currentzis’ planned European dates, this triggers an earthquake from Vienna via Baden-Baden to Dortmund. Conductor Currentzis, his ensemble MusicAeterna and Russian cultural policy are currently feeling that their pull is waning, that resistance to cultural appropriation is growing, and that Putin’s cultural propaganda is faltering.

German singers cancel

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Soloists from the West seem all the more important to the orchestra in Russia at the moment, especially for Wagner’s “Tristan”, which is to be performed in Moscow in November. We are looking for singers, preferably from Germany. As a sign that Russia is not completely on the sidelines, that Putin’s cultural propaganda still works, that something is being done as a cultural nation. But cancellations have been pouring in for weeks. First of all, Bayreuth tenor Andreas Schager had his name removed from the announcement, baritone Matthias Goerne explained that his name had come to the side of the Moscow Conservatory without his knowledge or involvement.

And the singer Torsten Kerl, who had verbally agreed to take on the title role under Teodor Currentzis, sent a letter to Russia last week: “The partial mobilization has changed the situation for me and my partly Russian and partly Ukrainian family. Due to this renewed escalation, it is no longer justifiable for me, both humanly and morally, to perform as an artist in Russia at this point in time.”

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In 2020, the Putin system brought the Greek conductor, who was critical of the system at the time, from the Russian province of Perm to the metropolis of St. Petersburg. Obviously with the plan to use the international impact of the conductor and his orchestra. The story was good: a European musician who gets all the freedom for his visions in Russia of all places. Putin as the home of eccentric art experiments!

But in order for Currentzis to be suitable as an advertising figure for the Kremlin, the anarchic lateral thinker first had to be domesticated a little. The new home of the ensemble became the hall of the former radio station “DOM Radio”, which is now run by a media holding company, the chairman of which is Putin’s lover Alina Kabaeva. Suddenly, the money for MusicAeterna no longer came from an oligarch critical of Putin, but from the VTB bank, which was sanctioned in Europe, and the orchestra was quickly given a new board of directors, who from then on were to determine the international fortunes of the ensemble.

In addition to VTB boss Andrei Kostin, Russia’s National Bank boss Elvira Nabiullina and the governor of St. Petersburg, Putin friend Alexander Beglov, are also included. Although the orchestra and conductor now had new privileges, they were financially and organizationally dependent on the Putin state. At board meetings, Currentzis, who liked to dress in black, suddenly appeared in a checked suit. After the annexation of Crimea, Kremlin chief Putin even made Currentzis a citizen with full tax privileges.

He makes the impossible possible

Elbphilharmonie Hamburg

Since then, the conductor, who once liked to take a stand for the Kremlin opposition, has remained silent on Russia’s politics and, of course, on the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. The main focus of the Russian management was on conquering the concert halls in the west – for this purpose the MusicAeterna foundations were founded in Switzerland and Liechtenstein in 2020. This construction has been making Western cultural managers sweat since the outbreak of war at the latest.

For years they have benefited from the Currentzis phenomenon, the “genius” who cares about the “essence of music,” who “makes the impossible possible” and “gestures, whistles, stomps and even dances intoxicatedly,” according to a press release the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg can be read. A network of German and Austrian directors seems to be intoxicated by Currentzis: Markus Hinterhäuser stood by his side at the Salzburg Festival, loyal to the Nibelungs, Christoph Lieben-Seutter from the Elbphilharmonie and Benedikt Stampa never missed an opportunity to defend the silent Currentzis from criticism, put their four hands on the fire for him.

And Vienna’s head of the Konzerthaus, Matthias Naske, celebrated the conductor’s 50th birthday in St. Petersburg even on the day the war broke out. For a long time, Naske was an authorized signatory member of the MusicAeterna Foundation in Liechtenstein. He only gave up the post after political pressure. Previously, he had to cancel a pseudo “benefit concert” by Currentzis after the “Red Cross” did not want any money from MusicAeterna and the Ukrainian ambassador also protested.

In Salzburg, Currentzis conducted an Orff-Bartok double in the summer
© Photo: Gindl/dpa

The situation at the public SWR is particularly explosive. Currentzis has been chief conductor here since 2018 and, as a kind of music messiah, is supposed to distract from the fusion of the two radio orchestras – which he also succeeded in doing. After the war broke out, the broadcaster said they were convinced that Currentzis was on the right side, that they understood his silence, that the funding of MusicAeterna by the VTB Bank alone was unfavourable, but that the conductor would – sooner or later – certainly find a way to break away from Russian money.

But the opposite happened. After the war broke out, Teodor Currentzis had no problem appearing at Putin’s economic forum in St. Petersburg, never distancing himself from the fact that VTB boss Kostin said the conductor had sworn allegiance to Russia, and on September 2 Currentzis still played for Gazprom boss Alexey Miller in St. Petersburg and had him take a picture of her with his cell phone. Before that, Currentzis and MusicAeterna went on a Gazprom tour across Russia and played for the company staff at different locations.

Currentzis’ tenure at SWR ends in 2025

There are musicians in the ensemble who are pro-Russian and who have posted pictures on Instagram of being greeted with caviar on Russian runways. Cellist Vladimir Slovachevsky makes no secret of who his heart beats for. His Facebook page adorned the Russian flag at the beginning of the war, today he likes to show himself alongside the Russian national artist Valery Gergiev, who fell out of favor in Europe because of his loyalty to Putin.

This also changed the view from the outside: under the Facebook entries of the SWR Orchestra, the anger of the fee payers against the commitment of Currentzis became louder and louder. The chief conductor only takes on a minimal number of subscription concerts, and the artist-in-residence, percussionist Martin Grubinger, whose father recently sharply condemned Currentzis’ behavior in the Austrian media, will not even perform together with Currentzis in Stuttgart and Baden-Baden . Pianist Igor Levit also found a secret way around Currentzis in Salzburg this summer – without publicly distancing himself from the conductor.

For a long time, SWR hoped that the “Currentzis problem” would be resolved. A new boss, Francois-Xavier Roth, has been appointed for 2025. Teodor Currentzis they still want to “remain connected”. Has the cancellation in Cologne caused the broadcaster to rethink? In May, SWR orchestra director Sabrina Haane was quoted in the “Stuttgarter Zeitung” with regard to MusicAeterna’s VTB sponsorship: “‘We expect’ that the relationship between the ensemble and the sponsors will change.” When asked, what Haane explained, somewhat nastily, that she now believes that MusicAeterna is still supported by the VTB Bank and has even gone on a Gazprom tour, and how long they want to allow Currentzis at SWR: “At the time, I assumed that should the war situation intensify, musicAeterna’s opportunities to perform outside of Russia would be increasingly reduced. MusicAeterna will have to look for a different financing system and possibly a different location if it wants to continue making guest appearances in Europe. That was my personal assessment. If you interpret the expectation expressed here as a demand, that is a misinterpretation.”

Teodor Currentzis plays cat and mouse with his partners and sponsors in Europe. Baden-Baden director Benedikt Stampa tried again and again to speak to the conductor – but he regularly transferred him. Salzburg boss Markus Hinterhäuser hoped that his workhorse would position itself for the war at some point – Currentzis remained silent.

Now Currentzis is going on tour with “Utopia”.

When Teodor Currentzis announced that he would be founding a new orchestra without any ties to Russia, using only Western money, the directors in Europe seemed to have renewed hope. For years, Currentzis and his orchestra were a model of success, especially for the organizers. The Vienna Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic (neither of which have so far invited Currentzis back after conducting) are expensive and often very static music tankers. Currentzis is completely different, he is spontaneous and promises larger profit margins.

But even with the project “Utopia” there is a lot of crunching. Mysterious “European patrons” are given as sponsors, one of whom is officially known, the “Art and Culture DM Private Foundation”. Behind her is Red Bull boss and media entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz, who, as a promoter of pop music, was criticized for his national tones. Mateschitz also owns the Austrian broadcaster Servus-TV, for which ex-state opera director Ioan Holender conducted the only major Currentzis interview in the West since the outbreak of war, consistently avoiding the subject of war.

The Moscow VTB “Tristan” with MusicAeterna was originally planned as a cooperation with the festival halls in Baden-Baden and Dortmund. In the meantime, people are trying to save what can be saved. The rehearsals are now supposed to be moved to Baden-Baden, but a lot is unclear at the moment: how do you even get the musicians to the West? Who are you actually negotiating with? Who is listening to the negotiations?

And where do you transfer the money? For example on a VTB account? The Festspielhaus rotates. “You have to imagine it like this,” says Baden-Baden, “that the exchange is not continuous and often simply logistical things are discussed when it comes to a conversation. We would like to get an overview – the outcome is currently uncertain.” They want to work on a solution by Friday – then inform the public. Whether the Tristan in Baden-Baden and Dortmund will then take place with Currentzis and MusicAeterna – in the planned form: rather unlikely.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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