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The Greek conductor reinventing classical music

Paradise in Perm

At the edge of Siberia, a brilliant young conductor is reinventing classical performance. Noah Sneider went to meet the maestro

At the edge of Siberia, a brilliant young conductor is reinventing classical performance. Noah Sneider went to meet the maestro

Noah Sneider | December/January 2018

The Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre stands on a quiet square behind a dilapidated statue of Vladimir Lenin clad in an overcoat, clutching his signature worker’s cap. The light-blue building, a provincial Soviet interpretation of neoclassical style, looks charming in the way of a gangly child wearing a suit. It sits closer to the ice floes of the Arctic Circle than to the opera houses of Venice, Paris or Vienna. Inside, faded red-velvet seats fill a small hall with floors made of the worn oak parquet typical of a Soviet-era foyer. The compact stage can fit a 125-person orchestra, if the harps are displaced to the boxes. It is one of the last places you would expect to find one of the world’s most dynamic orchestras. Yet that is what Teodor Currentzis, an iconoclastic Greek conductor, has built here.

From this modest perch, Currentzis and his orchestra, musicAeterna, have scaled the heights of the classical music world. They headlined this year’s Salzburg Festival, opening festivities with a performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” and teaming up with the American director Peter Sellars for an innovative staging of “La Clemenza di Tito” that earned rave reviews. Last year Currentzis took home the prestigious Kairos prize, a European arts award. The jury credited him with “transcending traditional boundaries in the arts” and being “uncompromising in his determination to resist the constraints to which today’s music business is subjected”. Writing in the Guardian, the British pianist James Rhodes described him as “the conducting equivalent of Glenn Gould morphed with Kurt Cobain.” Attending his occasional appearances in Moscow has become a status symbol for the Russian upper crust, with tickets selling for many hundreds of dollars.

A junction on the Trans-Siberian Railway far beyond the borders of the known artistic world may seem an odd base for the conductor’s self-proclaimed mission to “save classical music”, but Perm’s peripheral location is what appeals to Currentzis. “The hippos of the centre are unwieldy, they cannot jump between burning circus hoops or twirl a double fouetté,” he told me when I visited Perm this October. Gathering far from the bright lights of Europe’s capitals allows Currentzis and his players the solitude to retreat into their music with a monkish devotion, and the autonomy to experiment freely. “We came here to make music the way that we like,” says Laura Pou, a Spanish flautist who moved to Perm from Barcelona six years ago to play in musicAeterna. (The orchestra also boasts members from Kazakhstan, Germany, Japan and Poland.)

Famous for his magnetic intensity, brash confidence and marathon rehearsal and recording sessions, the 45-year-old Currentzis cuts a rebellious figure in the cautious world of classical music. It is an image that he embraces: tall and slender, with sleek black hair and a pierced ear, he favours tight black jeans, black boots and loose scarves. The ensemble lends him the aura of a rock star – though for Currentzis, classical is the epitome of cool. “I get a bit bored with rock music, it’s too simple for me,” he says. “Classical music has depth and complexity that you can’t find elsewhere.”

Classical music has been with Currentzis from birth. In Athens, his mother ran a piano academy. “She had a school in the same building where we lived, and I always heard music through the walls,” he recalls. “I would wake up and, from eight in the morning, hear the piano.” As a young man, he was an anarchist with a wandering spirit. He travelled around western Europe, but found the scene staid and stiff. “What a pity that I didn’t live in Paris in the 1920s with the surrealists,” he laments.

The search for inspiration eventually led him east in the late 1980s, through the newly opening Soviet bloc and on to Russia. “It’s clear that Plato won here,” Currentzis says of his adopted home, characteristically enigmatic. “There is metaphysics here.” In 1994 he settled in St Petersburg to study with Ilya Musin, who trained many of Russia’s leading maestros, including Valery Gergiev, Yuri Temirkanov and Semyon Bychkov. In Russia, Currentzis says he found the spiritual depth he had been craving. “If the West explained sex as a result of the interplay of hormones, then here they think it comes from angels,” he once told Russian Esquire. “So I stayed.”

An opportunity to direct the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet in 2004 led Currentzis to Siberia, where he began building his orchestra. Seven years later, he and musicAeterna moved to Perm at the invitation of a progressive governor, Oleg Chirkunov, who had launched a “cultural revolution”, hoping to turn what had once been a gulag gateway and closed city for arms production into a hub for the arts. A top Moscow gallerist, Marat Guelman, launched Perm Museum of Contemporary Art. Currentzis was tasked with reviving the opera house, whose history stretched back to the tsarist era. Visitors flocked from Moscow, St Petersburg and abroad. Yet the renaissance proved short-lived. By 2013, Guelman had been forced out and Chirkunov replaced, their artistic openness clashing with the Russian state’s retreat toward conservative values. Of the original Perm avant-garde, only Currentzis remains.

With musicAeterna, he has established a reputation for relentless perfectionism. What distinguishes him from lesser conductors, says bassist Dilyaver Menametov, are unrelentingly high standards “towards performance, towards people, towards work and towards the music”. Currentzis once insisted upon re-recording the entirety of “Don Giovanni”, gathering the cast for a second summer of all-day recording sessions and persuading the studio to foot the bill. “I’ve come to trust him enough to know that such decisions aren’t arbitrary,” says Bogdan Roscic, the president of Sony Classical, the record label which released Currentzis’s interpretations of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, along with recordings of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and, most recently, Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony. For some musicians, Currentzis’s demands prove overwhelming; for those who endure, the results are sublime. “There’s something of Don Giovanni about him,” one of his singers told a documentary film crew during the second recording of the opera. “Obsessive in his love of music and pursuit of perfection.”

The weekend I stopped in Perm, Currentzis and musicAeterna delivered a stunning performance of Russian classics – Prokofiev’s first symphony, and Shostakovich’s second piano concerto and ninth symphony – that imbued them with overwhelming urgency. The selection of pieces was a nod toward the looming 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, juxtaposing Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony, composed in 1917, with Shostakovich’s subtle and contentious ninth, written after the end of the second world war. The peak of the evening, however, came during the slow, lyrical second movement of the Shostakovich piano concerto, rendered with heart-breaking tenderness by the guest soloist Alexander Melnikov and musicAeterna’s sterling string section.

On stage, Currentzis blends Apollonian precision with Dionysian passion. His dynamism drives the orchestra. He skips, jumps and punches the air. (Music, he says, is about “dance and prayer”.) His face contorts as if possessed by spirits. He can unleash a phrase with a raised eyebrow or release a glorious chord with a twirl of his fingers. From the front rows, you can hear as he whispers incantations to the orchestra: tak-a-tak-a-tak-a-tak. He seems to be summoning the music from a void, coaxing the notes out of the instruments like a snake charmer.

After the show, Currentzis retreated to his sanctuary, an office at the end of a long hallway on the theatre’s second floor. Well-wishers – including many heavily made-up women in high-heels and fur – assembled outside his door, hoping to gain an audience with the maestro. Inside, Currentzis has cultivated an atmosphere fit for a romantic prince: the thick scent of incense drifts over a dimly lit room lined with dark-red wallpaper and red-velvet curtains; an Orthodox icon hangs above a piano. The bookshelves are filled with an eclectic collection of tomes, in three languages, ranging from Mahler to Mary Shelley to Mayakovsky.

The fans appealed to Currentzis as if to an oracle. He played up the act, sipping cognac on a leather couch and dragging slowly on a cigarette. “Do you fear death?” one asked. (“It is not death I fear, but the cult of death.”) Another inquired about the nature of beauty. (“Beauty is when you recognise human pain, and find a release for it.”) This encore, performed with solemn intensity but also a knowing wink, lasted several hours. I waited for the last admirers to filter out before settling in to talk to him myself. To explain the essence of his artistic project in Perm, he turned to a passage by the modernist poet Ezra Pound, which hangs like a mantra above his door. “That I lost my centre fighting the world,” he recited, pausing for effect. “And that I tried to make a paradiso terrestre.”

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