Leave a Little Space

A conversation about the groundbreaking work of conductor Teodor Currentzis, with Peter Sellars, Olivier Renaud-Clément and Caroline Bourgeois

Teodor Currentzis with the MusicAeterna ensemble and choir. Photo: Olya Runyova

Two years ago, during the Venice Biennale, Pinault Collection curator Caroline Bourgeois and I were invited to an unusual event, a symphonic concert to take place at Teatro Goldoni on the occasion of the opening of the Moscow-based V-A-C Foundation’s Venetian arts space. We are both music aficionados, and over the years, I’ve turned Caroline on to this classical passion of mine, taking her around Europe to concerts and opera productions. Music has functioned as a good counterbalance to the demands of the art world, and this concert seemed like the perfect respite. The program was Mahler’s First Symphony. The orchestra was MusicAeterna and the conductor was Teodor Currentzis—names neither of us were familiar with.

As the concert started, notes, sounds and tempi surprised us and made us aware of something we’d never heard before—a grand gesture, an unusual offer and a most idiosyncratic approach to a familiar tune. Only by the second movement did we realize that the majority of this symphonic ensemble were standing and moving on stage to the rhythm of their interpretation. The musicians were handled as soloists, each with an individual skill and personality; even so, the orchestra felt whole and unified. The conductor was young, wearing black tights, high-laced boots and a black shirt buttoned up the back, topped off by a subtle Mohawk hairdo. He was a soft punk whom we assumed was Russian but turned out to have been born in Athens. Astounded by what we had just witnessed, we were determined to find out more. After meeting him that night, I knew we had encountered a Glenn Gould-like talent.

Since that unforgettable encounter in May 2017, we have followed and listened to Teodor and his orchestra and choir from Perm to Paris, Salzburg to Stuttgart, where he is the principal of the recently recomposed Radio Symphony Orchestra. Teodor surprises and destabilizes. He does not use a baton. His unconventional interpretations of classical music challenge listeners while taking them to new heights. Even audiences not steeped in the classical repertoire can’t help but be affected by his spiritual approach to sound and construction.

Aleksey Gushchin IMG_1776
Indian Queen, Perm, Russia, 2013. Photo: Aleksey Gushchin

This November MusicAeterna will perform for the first time in New York, at the Shed, the recently opened arts space in Hudson Yards. The orchestra will present Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, accompanied by a commissioned film by Jonas Mekas, the legendary avant-garde filmmaker’s last work before his death in January.

This past July, Caroline and I sat down with Teodor in Salzburg, where he has been welcomed into the family of international excellence in the birthplace of Mozart and the kingdom of Herbert von Karajan. There, ahead of the annual Salzburg Festival, he was preparing to conduct Mozart’s Idomeneo, directed by the indomitable Peter Sellars, their second collaboration after a hugely acclaimed production of La Clemenza di Tito, where Currentzis surprised audiences by adding musical extras into the opera score itself. Sellars joined us for portions of the conversation. These are edited excerpts.—Olivier Renaud-Clément

OLIVIER RENAUD-CLÉMENT: Peter, I want you to talk about Mr. Currentzis.

PETER SELLARS:There’s only one.

CAROLINE BOURGEOIS: That we know of.

ORC: So, your first collaboration in Salzburg was [Mozart’s] La Clemenza di Tito?

TEODOR CURRENTZIS: That’s right, two years ago.

PS: Well, we first met through Gerard Mortier [the late Belgian opera director, 1943–2014, who led the Salzburg Festival for a decade]. He’s the person who introduced us in Madrid.

ORC: That was when, 10 years ago?

PS: Yes, that’s when I met this incredible man. And then, for [Purcell’s] ‘The Indian Queen’ [2013], I went to the Siberian city of Perm, and got a sense of the culture that surrounds Teodor. It’s a culture of what music is; it’s a culture of everybody being present and creative; it’s a culture of everything being alive; it’s a culture of constantly challenging yourself and everyone around you. That energy is what you hope for from every human being, but certainly from artists. The classical music world has stopped living for challenge. We should challenge things in this world and say, ‘Is that the way that needs to be? What else is possible?’ And that sense of challenge is very powerful there. We live in a period now that is so materialistic. There is a book I love by Chögyam Trungpa, the Tibetan lama who moved to Colorado a generation ago. The title of one of his books is ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.’ It’s about how people—even when they are talking about spiritual things—think in materialistic terms. What does it mean to actually go beyond spiritual materialism into this other place where nothing is an object, everything is actually alive in a moment?

CB: That’s why I love music, because everything disappears. You are in another space.

PS: And the miracle is creating new space. Because the space we know is claustrophobic. And new space is needed for new ideas, for new generations.

ORC: At what point in your collaborative process do the two of you meet? Right from the beginning or as the work progresses?

TC: From the very beginning. What is amazing to me is that my work without Peter is not the same. I’ve also seen Peter’s work without me, and it’s also a different thing.

PS: [Laughs] It’s totally different.

TC: Sometimes he will make a suggestion. He might see something in a way that I would not, and it works. And we’ll go in that direction. The idea is not to have too rigid a conception of the work. You have an idea of what the work means to you, but you are open to see what the people around you can do. You are always talking and trying to dive in with your partner to find the harmony of communication between people, not in the isolation of your egoistic idea of what the work is about.

PS: Teodor’s gift is working with the people in the room. He finds notes, a style, a feeling, a vocal line for each singer. Totally unique. And he works with that singer until the qualities of that singer are incredible. But he wouldn’t do the same thing with another singer.

TC: Of course. You cannot have the same medicine for everybody, the same vitamin.

‘[Music is] like a sacred book—every person has his or her own interpretation. There isn’t one way to understand the text.…That’s what freedom is: to imagine something that I do not know and leave a little space for that.’—Teodor Currentzis

PS: Both of us work in the moment—listening, watching and responding, and adding something that creates a dialogue. As soon as people are in dialogue, they arrive at something that nobody thought of before. We go to a new place that we hadn’t foreseen, and that is the really inspiring part.

TC: One thing that is important to note is that Peter is a teacher. He wants to give the people he is working with an opportunity to find something themselves. If this works, then there will be all this bioenergy and this resolve in a serious way. You shouldn’t judge Peter aesthetically. If you are thinking, ‘Ah, that is a nice combination,’ or ‘What you are doing with the hand is beautiful,’ that is not what he means. All the people who have worked with Peter change. And I have changed by working with Peter.

PS: Of course, no performer is the same. You are creating this opening in people—what they think is possible and how far they think they can go—and supporting them. With Teodor, he shatters anything you thought of a piece. It’s not possible to listen to any other Mozart performance; it just isn’t. Teodor invites you into a completely new way of listening to this material—and feeling it. And also it’s moving to see that his orchestra and chorus have devoted their lives to working with him. They’re a part of his electricity.

CB: Kind of a big body?

PS: When I went to Perm for the first time, Teodor was on tour with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Every day the MusicAeterna orchestra met in the lobby of the Perm Opera and played every piece in ‘The Indian Queen’ before Teodor arrived. They played it fast, slow, this color, that color, more dance, less dance. So when Teodor arrived, the orchestra could play it every way possible. The atmosphere he creates is self-discovery. You can sense that the musicians know that this is the greatest performance they’re ever going to give, which is why they don’t want to work with anybody else. And with most every production on earth, there’s this thing called a second performance, when a little slump occurs. For MusicAeterna, every performance feels like a first performance. Every performance has the energy of everybody arriving at a place of discovery, arriving at a place of breakthrough, arriving at a place of some new understanding, not saying, ‘Okay, that worked, let’s repeat it.’ It’s quite miraculous.

TC: This is also the case with the revivals. We have worked a lot with Peter, and so we have done revivals of our work. And what is incredible is that we come back with new ideas.

ORC: And new singers as well, I assume?

PS: Sometimes, but it takes a while to find the right people. We might change the cast, but also you wake up every morning with new ideas. Hopefully, life is waking up every morning with new ideas. Also, when you have more rehearsal time, particularly when you can rehearse across years, you try many different colors. So every time you come, there’s another color, and you are painting over that and painting over that and painting over that. And finally all these colors are present; it’s never a backwards step. Everything is part of a continuum. You’re understanding more.

ORC: Music people tend to think that music is written one way, that’s the way it is, and that’s the end of it.

Scene from La Clemenza di Tito, Salzburg, Austria, 2017. Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth Walz. Photo: Ruth Walz
Scene from La Clemenza di Tito, Salzburg, Austria, 2017. Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth Walz. Photo: Ruth Walz

TC: That’s not true. It’s like a sacred book—every person has his or her own interpretation. There isn’t one way to understand the text. All communication is based on an agreement of common senses. I take for granted that when I say ‘green,’ we mean the same thing, but I cannot prove that. The professionalism of our musical system creates musicians who are very skilled at playing this spiritual material, right? But there is no true spirituality in that, because spirituality has to do with the freedom to imagine that there is another way to see the material you’re dealing with. That’s what freedom is: to imagine something that I do not know and leave a little space for that. And this little space is what gives challenge to the music.

PS: And we’re all here to do something that no one else could have done.

ORC: With ‘Idomeneo’ [the production of Mozart’s opera seria that Sellars and Currentzis performed at the Salzburg Festival from July 27 through August 19 this year], are you again adding other elements, musically, to the score?

‘An unfinished piece is something beautiful. So, so much is there. It’s an invitation, and we’ve made a path through the music Mozart left.’—Peter Sellars

TC: Not exactly. We took off ‘Non la morte,’ a banal cliché aria that doesn’t animate the personality of Idamante to fulfill the drama. Instead, we inserted the aria ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te?’ which is actually one of Mozart’s concert aria masterpieces. Written six years later, it’s based on the same text for ‘Idomeneo’ for a revised version of the opera, together with the whole concertante for hammer clavier. This insertion gives another dimension to the drama, and it takes its natural position in the opera.

ORC: So you’re not supplementing it; you’re exchanging it.

PS: Well, ‘Idomeneo’ was unfinished as a piece. Mozart kept experimenting. He never had a version that he was satisfied with, so it remains an open, unfinished work. An unfinished piece is something beautiful. So, so much is there. It’s an invitation, and we’ve made a path through the music Mozart left. Almost at the end of his life, he knew this one moment in the opera was a failure; it’s the moment when Idamante confronts his father. Of course, Mozart couldn’t write this when his own father was present. So years later, before Mozart leaves the world, he revisits the work and says, ‘This is what it should be.’ And it becomes one of his great masterpieces—something written by the 30-year-old Mozart visiting the 24-year-old one. [Peter exits]

ORC: Teodor, after recently stepping down following your eight-year residence as artistic director at Perm Opera, why was it important to you to continue to direct the International Diaghilev Festival in Perm?

TC: Because I would never leave Perm. The situation was that we didn’t speak the same language as the authority of the city. They have different views about opera theater. But at least we have educated this audience.

Stills from Jonas Mekas’ Requiem, 2019, 82 minutes. Courtesy the Shed

ORC: Which is amazing.

TC: Yes, an amazing audience there. I cannot throw away what we established in the city, so we need to keep doing the festival once a year. As you know, this festival is like an atomic energy station; it gives electricity to the rest of the country.

ORC: I think it’s a great idea to keep doing it. Another thing I’ve wondered: Why did you choose to remain in Russia?

TC: I have enough freedom to move the way I want in Russia. I’m not talking about political freedom; I’m talking about social freedom. At the Moscow Conservatory, I can play a concert at four o’clock in the morning.

ORC: I know. And the public follows you.

TC: It’s a place where I have the courage to experiment with music and not just play traditional music that repeats and repeats. It might be possible to do this in other cities, but I know that it’s possible in Russia. I can go from one club to the other at three in the morning. That’s what I love.

ORC: A cycle of string concerts in May, during the last festival in Perm, was a beautiful experience. I loved how we didn’t get a program until after the fourth piece was played. You like to have a rapport with the audience, like, ‘I’m bringing you a work, but you have no information on the work, so you have to absorb it entirely and process it by yourself.’

TC: Actually, it’s a little like what I’m doing with the Diaghilev Festival. It’s like a music monastery in the mountains. It’s very experimental. We have dancers, we have people preparing theological discussions, there are artists performing—not for an audience, but for themselves. It’s like a permanent camp of art. And once every two months, we will embark on a tour to other cities or locations and show what we do, and then return to that place. I don’t want to be a part of the center of the city.

ORC: And how would you describe your orchestra, MusicAeterna?

TC: MusicAeterna is an association of interesting people exchanging progressive ideas about music. It’s more than an orchestra. It’s not an association that brings together musicians who have the same idea about music. For us, it’s important not to have the same idea, the same ideology. It’s important to exchange ideas, to have individual visions.

ORC: How do you find your musicians?

TC: There are many musicians who I won’t work with, and many who won’t work with me. Of course, the highest possible skill of musicianship is important, but somebody with high skills might not make the music that I want to make. I haven’t fired anybody for years—everybody has a contract of one year. But there have been people who cannot live with us!

CB: It sounds like it’s a way of living much more than a profession.

TC: Yes, it is a different way of life. For most professional musicians, music is of course a personal passion, but playing in an orchestra is work that gives them money to lead their lives. But, for us, it is a very important part of life. We interpret life through music. It is a kind of kaleidoscope that gives us the opportunity to see the forbidden colors of life, to dig in the unknown part of emotions.

Peter Sellars and Teodor Currentzis in Salzburg, Austria, 2017. Photo: Alexandra Muraviova

ORC: Caroline and I come from the art world, so we see and deal with objects, with something that goes on a wall or in the middle of a room.

CB: Well, the object and the space. Art is about the object in space and not just the object alone. And that’s why our relation is really with space.

TC: There are some artists I like because I understand their work, and that’s not always a good thing. The most beautiful works are the ones that don’t have logical meaning to us, but they grab something deep in us that we don’t understand. That’s the mystery of art. It’s not an intellectual thing; it’s very animalistic for me. The spiritual is when you get some weird signals in an ancient part of yourself—you feel a part of yourself that you don’t feel every day. You know that it is you, but it is not you. And you cannot logically describe the sensation.
CB: It is beyond words.

TC: Yes. And it’s not about aesthetics; it is beyond aesthetics. Beauty is not about beauty. I think that real art is protest—a protest of the frame of time. Time is something that is our discovery. All our science and art are based in time. I read recently that the Norwegian island of Sommaroy supposedly wants to do away with timekeeping. Because of summer solstice, when the sun doesn’t set, the people have a more biological sense of time. Time was created as a system of communication, as a measure. But my work is a protest against time. We try to grab with time’s own weapons what is forbidden in time. The timeless stuff.

ORC: But that is why you are criticized sometimes.

TC: We are querulous. We make operations.

ORC: Like surgery.

TC: Yes, surgery to the body of time.

Olivier Renaud-Clément has organized exhibitions and acted as an advisor to artists and estates in the United States, Europe and Japan for many years. He has worked frequently with Hauser & Wirth, collaborating with the gallery on 23 exhibitions to date. He has collaborated with Takesada Matsutani, the estate of Fabio Mauri, Lygia Pape, August Sander and Mira Schendel, among others. Renaud-Clément is the founder of the International Friends of the Munich Opera and a board member of MusicAeterna, under the musical and artistic direction of Teodor Currentzis.