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Ionarts-at-Large: The Currentzis Dances

Orchestra-gossip needs to be taken with a grain of salt, or sometimes a satchel. The young conductor Teodor Currentzis, dubbed by the press as “The Miracle of Novosibirsk” after impressive opera performances in Baden-Baden, occasionally meets the verbal equivalent of shrugged shoulders from musicians. But unflattering comments say little about actual outcomes—and especially the Munich Philharmonic exercised in a long field study proving just that: Consistent grumbling about Christian Thielemann was consistently accompanied by the best performances of that orchestra in a decade. Not having heard Currentzis’ last concert in Munich (Schnittke, Ravel, Resphigi, and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto with Arabella Steinbacher), all I had to go by was the superb impression that he and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra left in Mieczysław Weinberg’s “The Passenger” from Bregenz. (Best of 2011).

available at Amazon
J.Adams, The Chairman Dances, Harmonielehre, etc.,
S.Rattle / CoBSO

available at Amazon
S.Prokofiev, Symphonies 5 & 7,
K.Tennstedt / BRSO
PROFIL Hänssler

The concert on Wednesday, February 15th, also went some way to back that discrepancy of perception up. The Greek founder of Musica Aeterna who headed the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre (he is now at the Perm Opera) delivered a very solid program of Adams, Schumann, and Prokofiev. He opened with John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances”—and along with the eponymous Mao danced, in a colorful array of excited windmill-movements—the wiry conductor. All smiles, with long bobbed hair, and India-rubber limbs, Currentzis looks like a master of ceremonies at MIT’s Harry Potter convention. An enthusiastic image, and a slightly ridiculous one. The orchestra, albeit with considerably less enthusiasm, played well through the fragrant-minimalist score, with enough routine and class necessary for it to be a successful curtain raiser.

Originally Adams’s “The Chairman Dances” had been cut from the second of three programs on Thursday, a ‘Young Audience Concert’, but that perplexing decision—John Adams would seem particularly suited for young audiences, better than the Schumann Concerto—had been reversed on short notice. Simplistic and juicy, Adams speaks the vernacular of the modern classical popular; a 1985 Divertimento in mildly oriental foxtrot form.

The Schumann Piano Concerto with soloist Mikhail Mordvinov (replacing Radu Lupu on short notice) was eloquent and charming, performed with some understatement but still enthused and not without slips—with a more impressive first than subsequent movement(s). The encore (Schumann’s Arabeske), well… it was an opportunity for Mordvinov to present himself before such a large audience and he seized it even if the applause didn’t exactly demand it.

Prokofiev Seventh Symphony is a tricky work to bring off well (it’s not very well served on recording, either, except by Järvi / Scottish SO and Tennstedt / BRSO), and that made the performance at hand so impressive: Currentzis handled the feeling and tenderness of the symphony, its quirky sounds, with assurance. Under his hands, the side-by-side of Prokofiev’s children-like naïveté, his veteran assuredness and deft rhythmic handling sounded perfectly organic—and the orchestra went along well enough, especially considering this was the first night of the run. As a little treat, Currentzis played the symphony with both alternate endings: the quiet original first, and then, after a little pause, the few bars of upbeat compromise that Prokofiev grudgingly added.