Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna come under scrutiny over relations with Russia

SALZBURG, Austria — Teodor Currentzis is revered as one of classical music’s most original voices, a rebellious conductor who can breathe new life into well-known works. In this cultural capital of Europe, where artists, agents and impresarios meet every summer, he is omnipresent, his name inscribed on banners and brochures. Her fans come from all over the world to listen to her performances.

But this summer, it’s not just her music that is making waves at the Salzburg Festival, one of the unmissable classical music events. Currentzis – who conducts a new double program here from Tuesday of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Carl Orff’s “De Temporum Fine Comoedia” – and his ensemble, MusicAeterna, are attracting attention for another reason: their ties with Russia.

Amid the war in Ukraine, Currentzis and MusicAeterna have come under attack for their reliance on VTB Bank, a Russian state-owned institution that has been sanctioned by the United States and other countries, but remains the main sponsor from the whole. Currentzis and the ensemble have been denounced for their silence on the war and criticized for working with associates of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, some of whom sit on the board of directors of the MusicAeterna foundation.

This scrutiny has complicated the career of Currentzis, one of the most in-demand stars in the industry. And it rocked the 102-year-old Salzburg Festival, whose leaders have backed MusicAeterna even as it has been shunned by other cultural groups.

“It’s not that I’m a coward; it’s so sensitive,” said Markus Hinterhäuser, artistic director of the festival, in an interview. “We are not for Putin. There is absolutely nothing to discuss about it.

Currentzis and his musicians are now at the center of a debate over how cultural groups should treat artists linked to Russian institutions. Many have cut ties with those close to Putin, such as conductor Valery Gergiev, a longtime friend and prominent supporter of the Russian president, who was once a staple of the Salzburg Festival.

Other Western institutions, however, have been criticized for their excesses after canceling performances by Russian artists not associated with Putin, and even with some who had spoken out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Bartok-Orff double program features the MusicAeterna choir. And his appearance, with Currentzis in the pit, has already drawn protests from politicians, artists and activists, who say the festival should not provide a forum for MusicAeterna in times of war.

“He belongs to Putin’s system,” Vasyl Khymynets, Ukraine’s ambassador to Austria, said in an interview. “He did not criticize this brutal war, but he is lucky to be featured on one of the most famous stages in Europe and probably the world.”

Esteemed pianist Evgeny Kissin, a frequent performer in Salzburg, said while he wouldn’t object to Currentzis performing with a Western orchestra, MusicAeterna’s ties to the Russian government were problematic.

“In the current situation, Russian state-funded groups should not be allowed to perform in the civilized world,” said Kissin, who was born in Moscow and is now based in Prague, citing the “criminal war in Ukraine” from Russia.

Currentzis, through his representatives, declined to comment.

Since founding MusicAeterna in Siberia in 2004, Currentzis has sought to challenge labels. He is known as an uncompromising classical musician, but has also gained a reputation as a punk, goth and anarchist. Born in Athens, he went to Russia in his twenties to study music and now carries a Russian passport. (Putin granted him citizenship by presidential decree in 2014, Russian media reported.)

Currentzis began his career as an outsider trying to build arts centers away from the traditional bases of Moscow and St. Petersburg, including at the Novosibirsk State Opera in Siberia and the industrial city of Perm. He has stood up to Russian authorities, including in 2017 when his friend and collaborator Kirill Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s most prominent theater directors, was detained in Moscow, a move seen as retribution for his critical portrayals of life under Putin.

More recently, Currentzis has been working to gain institutional support by finding a partner in the VTB bank, which since 2016 has helped finance MusicAeterna’s concert and recording projects. With the support of this bank, Currentzis opened a base for the ensemble in St. Petersburg in 2019.

The invasion of Ukraine on February 24 coincided with its 50th anniversary. On the same day he conducted an anniversary concert with MusicAeterna in St. Petersburg, where he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He performed the same piece again two days later in Moscow to an audience of more than 1,500, according to Russian reports.

Soon after, the ensemble began to face questions about its benefactors, and a performance at the Philharmonie de Paris was canceled while one at the Bavarian State Opera was postponed to 2024. In Vienna, a benefit concert scheduled for April in support of Ukraine has been cancelled. after activists and officials – including Khymynets, the ambassador – objected to the idea of ​​featuring Russian artists at an event for Ukraine.

Some presenters feared hosting a set linked to several senior Russian officials, including Andrey Kostin, chairman of VTB Bank; Alexander Beglov, Governor of Saint Petersburg; and Elvira Nabiullina, Governor of the Central Bank of Russia. They all sit on the board of directors of the MusicAeterna Cultural Initiatives Support Fund.

Others were sympathetic to Currentzis and his musicians, believing that if they expressed opinions about the war they might be punished in Russia. As criticism of the group intensified, they came under pressure to speak out against the invasion and secure funding outside of Russia.

In March, the SWR Symphony Orchestra in Germany, of which Currentzis is the conductor, issued a statement calling for peace, but without criticizing the Russian government or Putin. “Teodor Currentzis and the members of the SWR Symphony Orchestra unequivocally support the common call for peace and reconciliation,” the statement read.

Louwrens Langevoort is the artistic director and director of the Cologne Philharmonic. In an interview, he recalled that Currentzis, while smoking a cigarette in his dressing room after an appearance with the SWR Symphony in late March, said he longed for an “ideal world” in which he could work both in Russia and the West.

“He was really aware that something had to be done,” Langevoort said. “The pressure came from all sides and he – for security reasons for all parties living in Russia – would not make any statement.”

Even some of Currentzis’ staunchest supporters are pushing the ensemble to find new backers. Among them are Matthias Naske, the artistic director of the Vienna Konzerthaus, who said in an interview that his venue would not engage MusicAeterna until “the orchestra’s fully independent funding is secured”. Currentzis will still be allowed to perform there, he added.

“Teodor Currentzis is an exceptional artist who uses the power of music to uphold humanist values,” he said. “He feels responsible and sticks to his sets in Russia that he built there. It is wrong to punish him for not abandoning his musicians.

In Salzburg, festival leaders have sought to counter accusations that they endorse Russia’s cultural goals. The festival’s opening ceremony on Tuesday included a work by Valentin Silvestrov, Ukraine’s best-known living composer. A keynote speech by Bulgarian-German writer Ilija Trojanow was titled “The tone of war, the keys to peace”.

Hinterhäuser said he did not want to force MusicAeterna artists to speak out against the war.

“They are not soldiers; they are not responsible for what is happening,” he said. “It’s not collective guilt.”

The festival’s other ties to Russia have also come under scrutiny. One of the sponsors of the production of the double bill is GES-2 House of Culture, which is affiliated with Russian oligarch Leonid Mikhelson. It was sanctioned by the UK and Canada – but mostly Salzburg, not the European Union – after the invasion.

Currentzis, who made his Salzburg debut in 2017 with Mozart’s Requiem and “La Clemenza di Tito”, has tried to refocus attention on his art. Last week at the festival he conducted a performance of Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” Symphony, featuring members of the MusicAeterna choir and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.

Alexander Meraviglia-Crivelli, artistic and executive director of this orchestra, said he asked his musicians after the invasion if they wanted to continue the concert. Almost all of them wanted to perform, he recalled, although one Ukrainian musician expressed concerns about appearing alongside Russian artists.

“We strongly believe that in the arts and education, exclusion and cancellation is a bad thing,” he said.

Defenders of Currentzis have pointed to his rendition of Shostakovich’s symphony, which was written to remember the 1941 massacre of Jews near Kyiv by the Nazis, as a statement of his views on the current war. But the performance had been planned for a long time and Currentzis made no remarks during the concert.

At the end of the last movement, he held the room in prolonged silence. Then he smiled as the audience erupted into a standing ovation that lasted over seven minutes.

Joshua Barone contributed reporting from Salzburg, Austria, and Milana Mazaeva from New York.

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