Teodor Currentzis, the conductor touted in recent years as classical music’s “bad boy” or as a potential savior of an old art form confronting a rapidly changing culture, has been conspicuously reticent about Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. The cost of that reticence appears to be mounting.
The Greek-born Currentzis built his reputation in Russia, leading musicAeterna, an orchestra and chorus he founded in 2004, and opera companies in Novosibirsk and Perm, which frequently employed musicAeterna. The ensemble, now based in St. Petersburg, is billed as “independent,” but for years has been supported financially by oligarchs and firms in favor with the Putin regime.
Outside Russia, Currentzis has been chief conductor of the SWR Sinfonieorchester (Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra) of Stuttgart since 2018. He recently founded Utopia, an ensemble described on his website (http://teodor-currentzis.com) as a “time-limited association” of 116 musicians from 30 countries, backed by the Austria-based Kunst und Kultur DM Privatstiftung (Art and Culture DM Private Foundation) and “various European patrons.”
Last week, SWR announced that Currentzis will vacate his post with its orchestra in 2024. Whether or not he was fired by the state-run radio network depends on whose reporting (or tea-leaves reading) you credit. Slipped Disc (http://slippedisc.com), website of the deeply networked classical gadfly journalist Norman Lebrecht, reports that SWR “dumped” Currentzis and that leading singers are opting out of his production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” due be staged next month in Moscow.
Currentzis and Utopia are welcome in some Western European venues, non grata in others.
Louwrens Langevoort, artistic director of the Kölner Philharmonie (Cologne Philharmonic Hall), “expected that Currentzis, as an artist in the public eye, would have been able to express a critical view of the war by now,” writes Hartmut Welscher of the online classical magazine VAN. “After the events of the last weeks, especially the annexation of occupied territories by Russia, Langevoort lost his patience. ‘Russia has occupied a foreign country, innocent people are dying, and Currentzis only cares about his ‘Tristan und Isolde.’ He’s allowing himself to be funded by the Russian system. It’s fine if he wants to do that, but I don’t have to put up with it anymore.’ ”
Welscher advocates a more “nuanced” stance: “What is the connection between Currentzis . . . and Putin’s war and its crimes? The [19 billion euros] paid by Germany to Russia for fossil fuels since the beginning of the war is propping Putin up far more than a single classical music ensemble.
“Does it play into Putin’s narrative of Russia versus the West when we pressure artists and critics of the government in Russia to leave their country or cancel their concerts? Is that not a way of hollowing out Russian civil society further, and feeding the Kremlin’s propaganda about Western ‘Russophobia?’ ”
Silence or ambivalence about the war on Ukraine has not boosted the careers of Russian artists – witness soprano Anna Netrebko’s on-again, off-again opposition to the invasion, which left her banned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera and on shaky ground professionally elsewhere in the West, possibly in Russia as well.
In founding Utopia, Currentzis seems to be casting himself as a world citizen leading a world orchestra (“Utopia has no permanent residence,” per his website), straddling the deepening political and cultural divide between Russia and the West.
As that divide becomes a yawning chasm, is neutrality still a viable option? Currentzis will be one of the most visible cultural figures to find out.