Savior or Charlatan? A Punk Maestro Jolts Classical Music

PERM, Russia — It was after midnight when the maestro — sporting a black motorbike jacket, skinny denims and boots — strode right into a cavernous previous manufacturing facility on this industrial metropolis 700 miles east of Moscow. He made his method via the group as one thing between an avant-garde taking place and a classical-music rave unfolded.

“Come,” the conductor, Teodor Currentzis, who will make his American debut in November main Verdi’s Requiem on the Shed in New York, advised 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 performed Mahler’s sprawling Ninth Symphony the evening earlier than and had spent all day rehearsing Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” — adopted the group out into the moonlight to a good older a part of the plant with creaky picket flooring, the place a puzzling mix of contemporary dance; a stage buried in laundry; lengthy Russian monologues; and a Dr. Seuss-like wind instrument stretched into the wee hours.

It was an evening that embodied the standing of Mr. Currentzis, 47, because the insurgent maestro of classical music. Tall, lanky and boyish, with pierced ears and darkish hair, he seems extra 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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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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