'It is important to reveal the full value and richness of Arab culture to the whole world': Famous music conductor Teodor Currentzis

The legendary Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis, who is all set to perform at the Dubai Opera next week, on music transcending cultural and language barriers

By Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Thu 18 Apr 2024, 10:33 PM

The Greek-Russian star conductor Teodor Currentzis and musicAeterna, the orchestra and choir he founded almost 20 years ago in Siberia, make their Middle Eastern debut in glittering Dubai. The charismatic maestro, 52, brings the ensemble to Dubai Opera for a momentous two-night performance on April 27 and April 28.

The first performance is a tribute to the Italian influence in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s work. The programme features Francesca da Rimini, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op.32; Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture after Shakespeare, TH 42; and the fantasy Capriccio Italien, Op. 45, an evocative portrait of Rome inspired by a trip Tchaikovsky took with his brother.


The second performance presents pieces from five of Richard Wagner’s operas: Parsifal, Tannhäuser, Tristan and Isolde, Lohengrin, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Currentzis conducts without a baton on the podium. His bare hands speak with expressiveness and exactness. Flowing moves spin out from his centre in endless waves. They are a swirl of arms, the sweep of a knee, and the curve of the neck when facing turbulent scores. The maestro’s full-body gestures are both Dionysian and Apollonian, reasoned and structured yet emotional and ecstatic. He invites, urges and leads his musicians to shape a forest of sounds.


Imposingly tall and intense, Currentzis has the look of a pop and onscreen idol and a personality to build a cult around. His appearance led to a 2016 documentary titled The Classical Rebel.

Through musicAeterna, he has been reinterpreting the masterpieces of the past: from Purcell to Shostakovich, passing through Rameau, Mozart, Verdi, Mahler, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.― He rendered a galvanising recording of the Fifth Symphony published by Sony Classical. Currentzis expresses his enthusiasm about performing in the Emirates and envisions high-level exchanges. “I am very excited about our upcoming performance in Dubai,” he tells wknd. “The United Arab Emirates implemented the most daring ideas, becoming one of the world’s most prosperous and successful states. This approach is very close to mine — to make the impossible happen. That is why I strongly wish to develop cooperation with talented musicians from this country who offer a unique and rich heritage to support the idea of creating a global cultural centre in the UAE that would bring together local and European academic cultures.”

During the interview, he discusses his vision, a total, quasi-superhuman, monastical dedication to music, and his fondness for Arabic music. Edited excerpts:

What made you choose Wagner and Tchaikovsky for the Dubai concerts?

Wagner is the most important composer of the 19th century, a reformer of the art of orchestration, and the founder of conducting practice in its modern form. This man changed our ideas about art by formulating the principles of Gesamtkunstwerk — the synthesis of all the arts, which remains an innovation, a timeless trend in music. Naturally, the music he wrote may seem difficult to understand. The programme we are taking to the Dubai Opera will present fragments of his most famous operas. They form a synopsis of Wagner’s mature work, a beginner's guide to Wagner.

And Tchaikovsky is our soul; it’s a sentimental choice. It is emotional, dramatic, expressive, very personal music — one of the greatest works of art.

The language of music is universal, yet do you usually expect to face unique challenges when performing to audiences across cultures? Precisely this time in the UAE?

I love it very much when people from different countries, cultures, and traditions as well as with varying experiences of life and professional backgrounds meet. Such communication is very enriching. It gives us the opportunity to form a new way of thinking for the future development of culture and society. Music allows us to speak the same language no matter how different we are because, in our imagination, no language barriers exist.

Also, it is exciting for me to launch a dialogue with Eastern culture. I am really keen on Arabic music and culture, in general. It is important to reveal the full value and richness of Arab culture to the whole world, specifically through the dialogue of a unique local culture with European academic music.

What has been the manifesto or philosophy behind the musicAeterna ensemble and chamber choir since their foundation in Novosibirsk, Siberia, in 2004?

The unique thing about musicAeterna is that it is not just a symphony orchestra in the conventional sense. It is a community of rare specialists who once gathered to set off on a large-scale expedition to explore what music and humans are. These people don’t clock-watch, waiting for their working day to end. We don’t consider what we do to be work at all. It is our life, our ministry, our mission.

The musicAeterna Orchestra was founded 19 years ago. We gathered young musicians, many of whom had just graduated from the conservatory. They were enthusiastic young people who were very much in love with music. We lived in Siberia, very far from all the capitals of the world and the hustle and bustle of the big city. We could focus on what was important. We spent much time together listening to our favourite music, watching art films, reading poetry, and rehearsing without thinking about time and everyday comfort. We still live like this, although now we spend most of our time in the largest concert halls and festivals. However, musicAeterna musicians remain monks united by one DNA, who serve music with great awe and awareness. As a result, there is powerful energy and a special outcome, distinguishing musicAeterna from many other orchestras, most of which produce one programme after another as if on an assembly line. What we do at musicAeterna is handmade, delicate jewellery work.

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

Symphonic music inspired me to practise conducting. Whether we like it or not, the best music is written for the orchestra. And the richest and most expressive instrument that exists is the orchestra. The synergy that arises between the musicians in the ensemble is like the unification of all the elements of nature: the skin on the timpani, the hair from which the bows are made, the wood of our instruments are all wildlife, copper comes from the earth, there is also our breath — this is air, and water, which is our body. Being a part of the orchestra, a person enters into some special relationship with nature, expresses himself in it, and says something important in this way.

You were born in Athens, Greece, in 1994. At 22, you moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, because you wanted to study with orchestra conductor Ilya Musin. What is the most crucial lesson he taught you?

Ilya Musin was an outstanding mentor. The main thing he taught me was to experience those magical moments that are born in music. This magic cannot be taught, but while watching a person capable of it, you can feel this power in yourself at some point. Of course, I am not talking about the people who perform magic tricks. I’m talking about the ability to influence people, inspire them, bring them into ecstasy, or calm them down with your actions. That is a great power and a rare gift. And Musin possessed that.

How much Greekness exists in you as an artiste?

It’s essential to preserve your identity. You can’t imagine how happy I am when I see people in their national costumes performing traditional music. It is so beautiful when people do not succumb to globalisation and the slavery of identity, when they preserve their traditions and essence. I also really appreciate Greek culture’s discoveries: literature, theatre, music, and sports — all of which were born in Greece. I’m thinking in Greek. Greece, for me, is a unique way of interpreting things through the prism of the Greek language, culture, poetry, and philosophy.

Do you prefer conducting symphonic repertoire or opera?

I’m more of an opera conductor, but now I conduct operas less, as I don’t run an opera house. However, I stage new performances yearly at the Salzburg and Diaghilev festivals. Yet, I am more interested in the transcendental experience with the audience. In general, I am interested in those areas where there is inspiration, and the opportunity to create something new is always inspiring.

In a recent interview, you said, “Making classical music is like making love; you need fire and ecstasy.” How do you cultivate passion and a state of bliss personally?

Passion arises when you can create something beautiful. It is this premonition of beauty that gives you strength.

Once you said, “There is no point performing something that’s been performed a thousand times before unless you do it differently.” When do you find that fresh water running through classical scores each time?

In general, I am very lucky because very few reference recordings or performances exist. It’s terribly difficult to do the right thing — to find the sound the composer aspired to in his imagination. We have been trying to get closer to this perfect sound all our lives, but it is almost impossible to attain it.

What does perfection mean to you?

Perfection is what I dream of and believe in, but it is what remains unattainable. No matter how much we strive to achieve it or how close we approach it, we always stay one step away from it. However, this unattainable dream motivates us to continue on this path.

How do you transmit your ideas about a work to your musicians during rehearsal?

Apart from explaining our strategy, how we will perform and how we will create the sound we need, I also try to find the source of that feeling, which will help us express what is reflected in the music. It’s impossible to explain; you can only feel it.

Leonard Bernstein said about the role of a conductor, “It’s a sort of curator’s job --- taking care of the great treasures of the past, and it’s very necessary to keep this great museum of works alive for the future.” What is the principal role of the conductor in your view?

A conductor gathers people around him, accumulating their energy and giving it a certain shape. The music that is written on paper is mute. It only becomes music when it is performed. But how can one encourage a large number of people, musicians, each of whom is a separate person, to become one organism and reproduce exactly what the composer heard in his imagination? That’s what a conductor is for. That is the curator’s role Bernstein was talking about. But the conductor is a little more than just a curator. Not only does he tell you where to hang the painting, but he draws it himself.

You blur boundaries between genres. What’s your relationship with Arab classical music, melismatic singing, and coloraturas?

I really love Arabic music. Greek music is very similar to Arabic music. When I am at home alone, I often listen to Arabic music; it calms and soothes me. I frequently invite Arabic music performers to my festival. Seeing how they intersect with classical musicians in some projects is fascinating. That is when we see how the same idea can be expressed differently. Arabic music preserves its identity, the more persistently it resists unification and preserves the ancient beauty inherent in it, the more it will inspire people.

In 2022, you founded the ensemble Utopia, which brings together many different cultures and nationalities. What is Utopia’s DNA, and why did you choose that name?

Utopia is our intention to dream. In today’s pragmatic world, all dreamers and idealists turn out to be residents of Utopia. When I said that I would like to create an orchestra where the best musicians would come together, passionately in love with music and ready to give all their time to get to the inner essence of the musical text, I was told it was a Utopia. It is the fifth time we will meet this spring, and the bar we set for ourselves rises higher and higher each time.

How does it feel to be considered a cult figure in your field?

A cult figure is a person who possesses such a powerful energy of transformation that they can show us a well-known phenomenon or thing from an entirely new perspective. There are people who can say two simple words, and you experience an epiphany and see everything in a completely different light. That’s the essence of a cult figure.

How do you want to be remembered in the future?

I want to be remembered as a person who did something good in this life, brought something bright and real, and shared something that helped people find hope and become better human beings. Everyone wants to be remembered for this, but everyone does the opposite thing for some reason.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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