The whole thing was made all the more extravagant by the fact that this was the second time Currentzis and his orchestra had hunkered down to record Don Giovanni: they had made their way through a complete session in 2014, only for Currentzis to decide that he wasn’t satisfied with the result, and then convinced executives at Sony to finance a completely fresh recording from scratch. “I’ve come to trust him enough to know that such decisions aren’t arbitrary,” Bogdan Roscic, the president of Sony Classical, told the Deutsche Welle filmmakers. “I wasn’t amused, but I grit my teeth and rescheduled the whole thing again.”
The result, which was released last November, is a stunning and vibrant recording that makes Mozart sound no less fierce and of the moment than the boldest pop music being produced today. Don Giovanniis the last in a cycle of three Mozart operas — after Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro — Currentzis and musicAeterna recorded for Sony, a series that brought Currentzis wider acclaim for his vital, energetic and, at times, experimental conducting style. Writing in The Guardian, the British pianist James Rhode called Currentzis the “conducting equivalent of Glenn Gould morphed with Kurt Cobain.” Rhode declared of Currentzis recordings of Mozart: “His conception of these works is so grand, so life-affirming and life-changing, so far beyond anything that has come before it that it has, for me, redefined music itself. This is classical music breaking the four-minute mile […] the sheer, visceral, driving energy, the humour, pathos, romance, verve, face-punching force of it all is overwhelming.”
The city of Perm provides what Currentzis has alternatively called an ideal “laboratory,” “sanctuary,” or “monastery” for that kind of unbothered and painstaking experimentation. Perm is a rather isolated and industrial place — in Soviet times, it was a closed city due to its munitions factories — but with a rich cultural and musical history. In 1941, the Kirov Theatre — now the Mariinsky — was evacuated from besieged Leningrad to Perm. The arrival of Leningrad’s choreography academy led to the creation of the Perm Ballet School, which went on to international fame. After the war, many artists and their families stayed, and even as foreigners and Soviet citizens were kept out, Perm became a centre of music and dance.
That history was purposefully evoked in 2008, when the Perm region’s then-governor embarked on a program of innovative artistic programming that would be dubbed the Perm “cultural revolution.” Cultural figures from all over Russia came to Perm to launch new projects, among them Marat Guelman, the Moscow curator and gallery owner, who was put in charge of the newly opened Perm Museum of Contemporary Art. Innovative projects in theatre, public sculpture and design cropped up all over town. Currentzis arrived as part of this wave — and is the last figure of the period to remain. Guelman came under pressure to step down and left Perm in 2013; over time, the “cultural revolution” was reduced to a nostalgic memory as the Russian state — in Perm as in the country as a whole — elevated more conservative, reactionary values.
When I asked Currentzis about this legacy, and his role as essentially the only figure still around in Perm from this short-lived avant-garde era, he spoke of the idea of revolution in humanistic terms, more individual than systemic. “For me the idea of revolution is about opening a person’s imagination, to break your guilt, to become a better person in how you communicate with others,” he said. “The idea of a better world is our own personal story. We cannot change stupid politics. But we can change ourselves, and thus our environment — and that is already something.”
For now, Currentzis says he is left alone with his orchestra to create musical works as he sees fit. Surely his growing international renown gives him an additional measure of protection from state bureaucrats or cultural figures who might find his experimental tastes confusing or somehow threatening. “I’m a very happy person, and also very privileged, because no one has ever touched me,” he told me. But Currentzis is not oblivious to the fact that contemporary art and culture can face great institutional pressure in today’s Russia. “I see some things happening around me that make me really sad,” he said. “Somebody started to think in the Soviet way, that some art is against Russian ideology, this art is good, that art is bad. It’s rubbish: people need the lessons of history and a good psychiatrist.”
When we spoke, Currentzis referred to himself as a “Russian” musician, and spoke of Perm as home. He said that Perm, by virtue of its geographic and cultural remove, provides the “opportunity to create alternative solutions to problems — what you simply cannot do in Moscow or St Petersburg.” He has turned down opportunities to move to either place and take over established orchestras there — it would be too hard to upend the legacy of tradition and inertia in the big city companies. “I don’t want to fight with people, I want to work with people who have the same dreams as me,” he said. “For much of my life, I was the crazy person of the village,” he added, laughing. Now that he and the city of Perm are in a kind of running creative and intellectual dialogue, he doesn’t want to start over.
The next evening, I returned to the opera theatre for the performance of Requiem. The concert felt like a lucky, almost magical discovery: I had paid 2,500 roubles ($40) for an orchestra ticket in Perm; resellers in Moscow were offering seats for 50,000 roubles, ($850) for the concert two nights later. Currentzis is a vibrant and physical conductor, and as he began Requiem, he was practically dancing across the stage in some parts, singing along at others. The music was mournful, laced with the beguiling unknowability of loss, yet propulsive and dynamic, pulsing with a sense of life and possibility. The musicAeterna choir evoked the timelessness of church and faith; the power of the orchestra’s strings and percussion brought me back to earth. I felt like borrowing from Currentzis and dancing myself. As the piece drew to its climax, the voices on stage blended with the drums and violins, turning Mozart’s notes into a wave of sound, enveloping the audience with ferocious energy, at once frothy and invigorating. The ovation went on for minutes.
After the performance, I went up to Currentzis’s office. The hallway outside his door was comically full with beautiful, exquisitely made-up women who had come to gush their praise to the maestro. Inside, Currentzis held court from a velvet couch, listening with interest as visitors told him of their reactions to the performance, and posing for photographs with whomever asked. I sat down and asked whether he thought Requiem, initially commissioned to accompany the dead wife of an Austrian noble into the afterlife, was a piece of mourning or celebration. “There is a certain sadness there,” he told me. “But the piece is ultimately about hope, of moving toward the light, of turning loss into something positive, into something beautiful.” I left around nine in the evening, but Currentzis would stay for several more hours, drinking wine and inviting in more guests, talking about music and art and all he finds mysterious and compelling in Russia, which, as he had told me earlier, he considers less a place than an idea.
Text: Joshua Yaffa