In war, truth is the first casualty, as the saying goes. Maybe the second or third casualty is a sense of perspective about what happens on war’s periphery. When the world is divided into friend and foe, it’s hard to find space for the in-between. But that’s where the truth is usually found.
Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis was a polarizing figure even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some considered him classical music’s biggest charlatan. Others thought he was the only one who could save the field. But that discussion always focused more on his appearance than on music. Currentzis has always been a better, more serious artist than his pathos-laden interviews and occasionally tasteless self-presentation as fallen romantic hero would have audiences believe. In 2018, he became music director of the SWR Symphony Orchestra in southwestern Germany, completing his entry into the musical establishment.
On February 24, Russian troops invaded Ukraine, and Currentzis’s status changed virtually overnight. Fellow Russian conductors such as Vladimir Jurowski and Kirill Petrenko quickly took a public stand against the attack and Putin’s regime, but Currentzis remained silent. He did not respond to requests for comment, and didn’t contribute to a collection of statements of Russian musicians against the war. As his orchestra came under increasing pressure due to the silence of its most expensive employee, the organization, a publicly-financed radio station, released a timid statement at the end of March. “Teodor Currentzis and the members of the SWR Symphony Orchestra stand firmly behind the common appeal for peace and reconciliation,” it read.
Currentzis stayed quiet, and various theories sprung up to explain his silence. It quickly emerged that Currentiz’s orchestra and choir, MusicAeterna, are supported by the sanctioned, semi-state-owned VTB Bank. Chairman Andrei Kostin sits on the orchestra’s board, as does Elvira Nabiullina, the head of Russia’s central bank. A recent tour of Russia was sponsored by Gazprom—CEO Alexei Miller was spotted at a Currentzis concert in St. Petersburg on September 2. The ensemble, formerly based in Perm and now in St. Petersburg, has its home in the former House of the Radio. This venue’s owners include a media company; Alina Kabayeva, Putin’s presumed mistress, sits on the board of this company. As Currentzis continued to decline invitations to comment on the war, journalists and critics on social media began to see him as another Valery Gergiev. Commentators were outraged about Currentzis’s continued bookings in Europe.
Last week, two German musical institutions appeared to give in to the public pressure and cut ties with Currentzis. Last Friday, the SWR Symphony Orchestra announced that it would be allowed its contract with its music director to expire in 2024, with French conductor François-Xavier Roth filling his position in 2025. On Tuesday, the concert hall Cologne Philharmony canceled a concert planned for January 2023 with Currentzis and his orchestra.
Commentators quickly connected the SWR Symphonieorchester’s decision to the current political debate. The New York Times wrote that Currentzis was “stepping down,” the industry blog Slipped Disc titled its post “Germans Dump Currentzis.” But in a statement to VAN, SWR Symphony Orchestra managing director Sabrina Haane explained that the decision to let Currentzis had already been made in 2021 and was “completely consensual.” The orchestra plans to work with Currentzis past 2024 and will continue to play all upcoming concerts with him as planned, in this and next season. “That means there will be more concerts with him next year than in the current season,” Haane said. Roth confirmed that his negotiations with the orchestra had begun long before the Russian invasion.
A musician in the SWR Symphony Orchestra, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said that the orchestra knew nothing of Currentzis’s plans to leave until last week. He was an “über-genius” who led some of the best concerts this musician had ever experienced. But, she said, politics had nothing to do with the decision: “No one expected him to make a political statement. Politics and music don’t mix.” If anything, she thought the bureaucratic structures of a publicly funded institution—fixed rehearsal times, players on long-term contracts—were the bigger obstacle for Currentzis.
In contrast, the Cologne Philharmony’s decision to cancel the upcoming concert with Currentzis was explicitly political. In a press release, artistic director Louwrens Langevoort said that “the activities and funding of his ensembles MusicAeterna and Utopia imply that he is very close to the Russian regime.” Currentzis last played at the Cologne Philharmony in late March. At the time, Langevoort defended the conductor by saying that “he declined to make a statement in order to protect those currently living in Russia.”
What changed? In a phone interview, Langevoort told me he’d been doing some soul searching. He expected that Currentzis, as an artist in the public eye, would have been able to express a critical view of the war by now. 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.”
Langevoort’s decision came as a surprise to the SWR. But, Haane said, it doesn’t change the orchestra’s position on its outgoing music director. “The SWR has always emphasized that cooperation with Teodor Currentzis can only continue on the basis of shared values and convictions. We are in regular exchange with him and can assure you that we still share these values,” she said.
By saying publicly that Currentzis is “very close to the Russian regime,” Langevoort is drawing a comparison between Currentzis and Gergiev. He sees evidence for this in MusicAeterna’s sources of funding and the conductor’s silence. But unlike Gergiev, who serves as a sort of unofficial culture minister for Putin’s oligarchy, Currentzis has never shown any ideological affinity with the Russian regime. In Russia, “everything is corrupt, we’ve known it for more than 1,000 years,” he wrote four years ago for the premiere of Philippe Hersant’s choral opera “Tristia.” In 2017, he criticized the arrest of opera and film director Kirill Serebrennikov in a written statement: “Well-known men openly embezzle huge sums of money and remain free, still running state theaters and enjoying great privileges. At the same time, people who do real work, people who create something new in modern art that is recognized throughout the world, end up in prison.” Currentzis was also among the first signers of a petition calling for Serebrennikov’s release.
People who have spoken to Currentzis in recent months say that nothing has changed in his rejection of Putinism. That, too, distinguishes him from Gergiev, who has never made any secret of his loyalty to Putin, either in private conversations with musical institutions, or publicly. We can only speculate as to why Currentzis has decided not to speak out. Unlike Vladimir Jurowski or Kirill Petrenko, Currentzis lives in Russia. For years, the orchestra and choir of MusicAeterna, which he founded and formed, were regarded by artists and promoters alike as a role model for artistically free work, independent of state influence. “What he does is the only real way to do it,” Currentzis’s colleague Joana Mallwitz said in 2017 about MusicAeterna, still based in Perm at the time.
Like many other ambitious artists in Russia, Currentzis has organized funding from private foundations and oligarchs to escape the control and homogenization of state cultural policy. Six years ago, the Russian composer Sergei Newski wrote in VAN that for artists in Russia a cooperation with state structures was increasingly difficult, because the state was only willing to support culture promoting “a positive image of Russia.” Newski wrote, “For young musicians in Russia, the only hope of positive development in the scene and in the art world in general is the growth of private funding. This has taken off in the last two years, as the state has shown itself to be incapable of administering cultural policy.” Such private patrons included oligarchs such as Sergey Adoniev, who supported MusicAeterna in Perm, and foundations such as the VAC Foundation and the Aksenov Family Foundation.
By positioning himself publicly against the war, Putin, and his own sponsors, Currentzis would be bringing consequences on himself. Probably more importantly, it would likely mean the end of his MusicAeterna. “The fact that Teodor Currentzis does not speak out publicly is difficult for parts of the audience to accept. But we know that the vast majority understands that Currentzis does not speak out publicly against Putin. The possible consequences that such a statement would have for him are well known,” Haane said.
Is it right to pressure artists who live in a dictatorship to make critical public statements about that same dictatorship? Is silence necessarily complicity for such artists? The Munich musicologist Friedrich Geiger is an expert on music under Hitler and Stalin. “It begs the question, what does one actually get out of it?” he said. “For me, it reveals more about the person asking artists to make such statements; that it’s more of a strategy to ease one’s own conscience. ‘I’m not going to make any further efforts to learn what you think or what else you’ve been up to; I don’t really care.’ If you just say ‘Putin is evil,’ then you can play.”
Cologne Philharmony artistic director Langevoort sees things differently. He explained the cancellation of the Currentzis concert by saying that he only wanted to invite artists who have shown a “pacifist attitude” and criticize the war in Ukraine publicly. But that leads to contradictions too. Russian artists are still performing at the Philharmony, including those who have said nothing about the war. In late August, soprano Anna Netrebko performed there. In contrast to Currentzis, she has displayed genuine support for the Putin regime, and her public statements on the invasion have been contradictory, to say the least. To expand the question: Wouldn’t Lang Lang, a representative artist of a regime committing genocide in Tibet and Xianjing, be deserving of similar scrutiny?
In the Ukraine war itself, it’s possible to assign clear perpetrator-victim roles. That becomes much harder in the complicated peripheral social reality. Understandably, most of us want to do something to counter our own powerlessness in the face of the suffering and injustice that Russia is causing. We want to take action, to express our discomfort and outrage, to overcome our helplessness and take a stand. That seems to be how Langevoort is feeling. The question
is whether these symbolic acts of transference achieve more than the easing of one’s own conscience. Zoom out a little: What is the connection between Currentzis and his multinational MusicAeterna and Putin’s war and its crimes? The €19 billion 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.
Langevoort sees his cancellation of Currentzis’s concert as “taking a clear position.” More necessary now is the courage to take a nuanced position. 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”?
It’s impossible to tell what Currentzis thinks about the debate raging around him. At times he acts like he has nothing left to lose. On the sidelines of the most recent Salzburg Festival, he appeared in an interview for the Austrian channel Servus TV with the former director of the Vienna State Opera, Ioan Holender, who in 2018 described Crimea as “more Russian than Russia.” The conversation recalled Monty Python’s “Don’t mention the war!” skit. This week Currentzis is touring Luxembourg, Germany and Austria with his newly founded orchestra Utopia, which is just being promoted by Servus TV founder and Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz. It’s not exactly appealing stuff.
Which brings us to Currentzis’s successor at the SWR Symphony Orchestra, the friendly Frenchman François-Xavier Roth. Unlike Currentzis, he seems deeply concerned about his reputation. He is represented by the German law firm Ralf Höcker, whose clients have included far-right politician Alice Weidel and authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In an interview, law firm founder Höcker, according to one newspaper “Germany’s most feared media lawyer,” explained his professional approach as follows: “Before a report appears, I try to find out what the report will look like and what illegal content it might contain. And then I try to prevent it from being published.” In one blog post, he wrote that it’s fine to threaten journalists. Last year, while doing background research for an article on Roth, the VAN editorial team received a letter from the Höcker law firm reminding us that any improper reporting “may trigger claims for monetary compensation on the part of the person concerned.” Most of the time, the world is not black and white, but pretty gray. ¶