The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, just a few days until New Year. A period of “Nutcrackers” and overpriced tickets, seeing and being seen. Of course, one can continue to be satisfied with this fossilized mainstream, but the Muscovites have long since developed a taste for new trends, especially when served to them in bite-size pieces. Such is the case with Teodor Currentzis.
People don’t clap just between movements here. The “Invasion Theme” in the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 starts with the lightest pianissimo. The connoisseurs, who seem to have decided the music has finished, suddenly make so much noise that the musicians stop playing. The concert master’s bow calls for the audience’s silence like a sword. After some time, the music resumes.
Behavior like this is nothing new to Moscow; it’s not the first time a classical concert has transformed into the backdrop of a sophisticated party. Success in the West, as well as media hype, has made the talented conductor the subject of a vain fascination. The greats bow before him and seek his friendship—from the once controversial TV diva and current presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak to billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich, to popstars like Dima Bilan. Such a level of interest attracts even more attention.
Fewer and fewer people are ready to really listen to Currentzis and his music. Instead of “who and how,” it’s only the “who” that counts—the main thing is that you’ve seen him, you’re going to see him, or that you can recite one of his rebellious or philosophical quotes.
“It’s a phenomenon exclusive to big cities,” Currentzis tells me. “I haven’t been in Moscow for a long time, hence the excitement. People don’t come to the concert for Mozart or Mahler. They want to know what’s popular in the world right now.”
In fact, Currentzis’ musical and creative individuality has been appreciated in Russia for quite some time. At first, his concerts were attended by critics, music lovers, musicians and figures from the cultural scene. “During Mahler’s Sixth in summer there was a lot of fresh blood; hipsters and intellectuals, and the atmosphere was very pleasant,” an old fan says. “Nowadays it’s extremely difficult to get away from the hegemony, the pathos and the glamor, and to focus on the music.”
The concert organizers have clearly noticed the advantages brought by an iridescent creative personality. Who else harkens back so explicitly to the Dionysian roots of music? Why can’t a conductor be a sex symbol? And so, the complexity of the Currentzis phenomenon is simplified into the language of an elitist brand of mass culture, whose participants are scared of being considered the bourgeoisie.
The Bolshoi too, where the concerts of Matsuev and Netrebko, and recently of Kissin, could barely resist his rising star. People are used to appearances from foreign artists like David Garrett or Vanessa May, they’ve never tried to hide that their direction is one invested in popular culture. But in art music the name Currentzis has, of late, attracted the most diverse group of panem et circenses seekers.
“The country’s greatest rock star,” “Musin’s only genius student,” “the savior of classical music.” For long enough, Russia’s media have constructed this image of the reviver and the revolutionary—almost embarrassingly so. But how else is one to construct something for so-called “consumers” that’s productive if they don’t challenge established tastes? Nobody wants to look old-fashioned, like they belong to the backward and the conservative, but rather progressive and extraordinary. Everybody wants attention.
This is how the opposition becomes mainstream itself, for snobs, for the hand-picked. “The exclusive concert for a choice audience,” as the performance of musicAeterna in Moscow’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was presented. The Volkov Pro agency put on the shows in Moscow and St. Petersburg. A quick look at the company profile suggests they don’t have much to do with classical music at heart: pop stars’ concerts, big shows, and…Currentzis. It’s all just a question of supply and demand.
Tickets for Currentzis’ concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg weren’t sold on the door, or on the concert house websites, but exclusively via a third party. Starting at 8000 roubles, around $130, they went up from there. 35,000 roubles for the cathedral concert, and more than 100,000 for Mozart’s Requiem in June 2017. The box office at the Moscow Conservatory didn’t mince its words: “The concert is commercial, tickets are available from third-party vendors.”
Some arrive in Maybachs, wearing diamonds and Louboutin heels, clap in the wrong places and sigh now and then, as if the whole experience had been forced upon them. Others are less extravagantly dressed, though no less concerned with capturing that perfect Instagram moment. They’re regulars at hip fitness studios and bars: training their bodies in the afternoon and their spirits in the evening. “How cool that he kept the leather jacket on,” Volkov Pro wrote on social media. “One of the best contemporary maestros will conduct a fairy tale for girls,” says a preview of Prokofiev’s “Cinderella.” No pathos, only love,” they promise.
But the whole thing barely seems to hurt Currentzis in the wider classical music world. “Do we need a bouncer for the hall?” he asks. The conductor is sure of it: it’s possible to text during a Mahler symphony and simultaneously feel its emotional burn. “Who are we to condemn others?” he goes on. “For those who prefer the image of the conductor, it’s time to forget their love for me. From now on the program will get more complex: Berio, Newski, Lachenmann.”
When I make love, I want to bring the woman to orgasm,” the maestro let us know in a 2014 interview. “For me that’s important. But unfortunately in music today there’s no space for orgasm. Beauty scares us.” That wasn’t the first time he’d compared music with love. And not the last. The private “Triumph” philharmonic in Perm, October 2017. Shortly before midnight, at least 300 people assembled in the hall, of whom only three were participants of the conducting workshops. The rest consisted of journalists, a few men, and numerous women—younger and older. How many of them were interested in conducting a symphony orchestra?
“I need to sit as close as possible,” you’d overhear. “I need to see him, hearing him doesn’t matter.” The grand ladies of the parquets and boudoirs are always a step ahead.
St. Petersburg, November of the same year. A line forms to meet with Currentzis and Alexander Sokurov for the opening of the “Diaghilev P.S.” The free registration finishes soon, and the less fortunate are prepared to pay to get in. Some have travelled from Moscow, where the first ever “Laboratory of the Modern Spectator” has just taken place. The event’s climax was the opportunity to hear a recording of Mahler’s First Symphony. Again, it was almost exclusively women.
It must be difficult for Currentzis to ignore the effect that each of his quotes can have on the average Russian woman—be it on ancient philosophy, Orthodox faith, esoteric influences or snippets from a sexologist’s diary. For them, the quality of his musical output is only a pleasant extension of his other qualities.
Historically, a real Russian woman would take a poor man who’d proclaimed God’s truth for his mission over money, power, and beauty. A connoisseur of the human soul with a tragic destiny, who knows how to wrap his metaphysical experiences in poetic forms, a free-thinking romantic who would sooner bare the soul than the body. The fact is, however, that when buying the “Currentzis subscription,” the majority—whether they know it or not—get a full package, all inclusive: the opportunity to develop intellectually and to be seduced, the enlightening Apollo as well as the sensuous Dionysius, a musician, poet, philosopher; epiphanies and spirituality; every now and then fine artistic enjoyment, every now and then an easily digestible product.
“I’m very thankful that he’s revived the world of classical music for me,” says one Moscow admirer. She’s followed him for 12 years, since the days when he was unknown, and the concert halls were half empty. But she’d never want to get to know him personally: “What for? I admire him deeply as an artist, and share his world view. I don’t need anything else.”
For those who do want more, there’s more than enough. They paint their lips scarlet-red, sneak into his dressing room after the concerts, ask philosophical questions, put their arms around him and kiss. In his study in Perm, lying among pillows, the maestro receives them with a Christian patience and smoky aromas. Long-time fans confirm: incense is simply necessary for somebody who is never left alone by women seeking beauty.
In the face of love, some lose their senses. “He’s an angel sent to us from heaven.” For the art music connoisseurs, who refuse to accept him as a philosopher, his power is manifest only in his music. Everything else is cheap, romantic pathos—a racket adjacent to the music. They don’t believe him, but still seek his attention.
“The biggest shock is honesty. That surprises some people very much,” according to Teodor Ioannovitich. “The reason for all this interest is that nobody fully understands him,” says a woman who heard him in 2016 with Mahler’s Sixth.
What does he want? Like Leo Tolstoy, he seems to have assumed a multitude of cultures, yet describes himself as an orthodox believer. Today he reads religious literature, writes poetry, and talks about the finer things in life. Tomorrow, he’ll lend his name to luxury perfumes, pose half-naked in magazines, and dance to “Too Drunk to Fuck.” The kind of contradictions which Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov lent, not in vain, to his “hero of our time.” Opposites do seem to attract.
“That’s the exact reason he feels so good in Russia: as the land of contradictions, it fits him perfectly. Here you can be a saint one moment and thief the next,” a loyal listener says. And then adds: “Wherever he goes he’d have followers and haters. But there’s nowhere on earth where they’d love him like they do in Russia.” ¶