He is praised and reviled for his idiosyncratic approach to classical masterpieces. According to Teodor Currentzis (1972) this is ‘a myth, I only do what the composer wants’. On Monday 7 May he will make his debut at Dutch National Opera with his own musicAeterna in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito. The production is directed by Peter Sellars and was premiered in Salzburg in August 2017.
Organizing a talk with the controversial conductor turns out to be quite a challenge. After weeks of intensive correspondence, Teodor Currentzis agrees to an interview – the following day. When I call him at the agreed time in Vienna, I am kindly asked to wait another five to ten minutes, the rehearsal with Camerata Salzburg lasts somewhat longer than planned. Two hours and many repeated calls later I finally get him on the phone. But, then then he takes all the time to answer my questions.
Creating spaces in music
He politely but resolutely parries my observation that he is apparently a perfectionist, given the ever-expanding rehearsal. ‘You can put it that way, but I would put it differently. I am dedicated to music and always try to achieve what I have in mind, that takes time. For me, music is not simply a way to fill in the empty spaces in my life. The exact opposite is true: my life is at the service of the spaces I create in music.’
How are we supposed to understand this, I can’t help asking, being a typically down-to-earth Dutchwoman. My question sparks off an enthusiastic plea from the Greek-Russian maestro about the metaphysical value of music. It represents nothing less than the Good, the True and the Beautiful, and makes us into better people. With this conviction, Currentzis fits in seamlessly with Russian composers who counterbalanced the barbarity of the Soviet dictatorship with spiritually inclined works.
‘I don’t see music as a series of sounds, but as a new form of communication that brings about natural harmony’, says Currentzis. ‘Our language, which has been developed over thousands of years, can only describe everyday matters that are absolutely necessary. It is becoming increasingly poorer and clumsier, and cannot express the really important things. We are stuck to our mobile phone all day, physical contact disappears. Instead of going for a walk with friends and enjoying the sunset, we have a conversation via Skype or Facebook. But music expresses the very essence of life.’
Contrary to this spirit of the times, Currentzis founded his orchestra and choir musicAeterna in 2004, with which he initiates an ever-expanding audience into these deeper layers of meaning. In preparation for a concert, visitors are a week long immersed in public rehearsals, master classes, workshops and lectures by philosophers, musicologists and psychologists.
‘I’ve created a laboratory in which we work with sensitive people’, says the conductor. ‘They are open, willing to look for the truth within and to enter into a relationship with what is happening on stage. This gives them as much insight into the performed works as the musicians themselves.’
Starting in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, he moved musicAeterna to Perm in 2011, some two thousand kilometres westwards. At the time, this relatively small city presented itself as the centre of a cultural revolution and offered Currentzis the opportunity to develop his idealistic concepts in peace and quiet. All his musicians and singers followed suit. The public also keeps coming in: ‘Our concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg are sold out months in advance, people come from all over Russia and even Europe.’
Renewing listening practice
Currentzis denies that with his approach he would preach mainly for his own parish. ‘I am not only looking for communication with intellectuals, we also play in squares, in hospitals and prisons, or for junkies. I notice that non-experts are often more open than the usual white audience, who think they already know everything.’
He is convinced that our listening practice should be renewed. ‘Listening to music is not about an opera fan who visits the same opera again and again, only with other singers, to judge how he or she takes the high note. Music is not a joke, it can transform us, it can teach us to love, forgive, help, show pity and compassion, cherish hope.’
Too many orchestras ignore this transcendent quality, he believes. ‘They approach music as a nine-to-five job, playing as if they are office clerks. Instead of conveying emotion, they erect a wall between performer and listener.’ For him, the success of musicAeterna lies in the unconditional dedication of both musicians and singers. ‘We make music to die for, every concert anew.’
Still, he calls it a myth that his performances are contrary. ‘I do exactly what the composer asks. The usual concert practice is stuck in twentieth-century performing habits, as we know them from recordings on Deutsche Grammophon or EMI. When Mozart indicates “thunder” in his score, the strings play hushed sixteenths, so you don’t hear a thunderstorm at all. Tchaikovsky asks for ecstasy and scores six times forte, yet they play mezzoforte. They make completely different music than the composer intended.’
Mozart: contemporary composer
À propos Mozart: Currentzis once called him a contemporary composer. ‘I still think so. Historically speaking, the world has not evolved in essential matters, only in superficial things such as clothing, medicine, gadgets. But all the good and bad things we had ages ago are still the same today. Mozart does not speak in concrete terms about aesthetics, but about the asymmetrical beauty of our lives. He is contemporary because he has found the golden spot of harmony, where different energies are combined into one all-encompassing energy. Therefore he will never become old-fashioned.’
More info, tickets and playlist here.
This article is a slightly adapted version af an interview I wrote for Preludium in April 2018, when Currentzis conducted musicAeterna in Concertgebouw Amsterdam
Here’s my review of La clemenza di Tito