SALZBURG, Austria — Teodor Currentzis is revered as one of classical music’s most original voices, a rebellious conductor who can breathe fresh life into well-known works. In this European cultural capital, where artists, agents and impresarios gather each summer, he is omnipresent, his name emblazoned on banners and brochures. His fans travel from around the world to hear his performances.
But this summer, it is not just his music that is the talk of the Salzburg Festival, one of classical music’s premier events. Currentzis — who is conducting a new double bill of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Carl Orff’s “De Temporum Fine Comoedia” here beginning Tuesday — and his ensemble, MusicAeterna, are drawing attention for another reason: their ties to Russia.
Amid the war in Ukraine, Currentzis and MusicAeterna have been assailed for their reliance on VTB Bank, a state-owned Russian institution that has been sanctioned by the United States and other countries but remains the ensemble’s main sponsor. Currentzis and the ensemble have been denounced for their silence on the war and criticized for working with associates of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, including some who sit on the board of MusicAeterna’s foundation.
This scrutiny has complicated the career of Currentzis, one of the industry’s most in-demand stars. And it has rattled the 102-year-old Salzburg Festival, whose leaders have stood by MusicAeterna even as it has been shunned by other cultural groups.
“It’s not that I’m a coward; it’s so sensitive,” Markus Hinterhäuser, the festival’s artistic director, said in an interview. “We are not for Putin. There is absolutely nothing to discuss about that.”
Currentzis and his musicians are now at the center of a debate about how cultural groups should handle artists linked to Russian institutions. Many have cut ties with close associates of Putin, such as the conductor Valery Gergiev, a longtime friend and prominent supporter of the Russian president, who was once a fixture at the Salzburg Festival.
Other Western institutions, however, have been criticized for overreach after they canceled performances by Russian artists not associated with Putin, and even with some who had spoken out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Bartok-Orff double bill features the MusicAeterna choir. And its appearance, with Currentzis in the pit, has already drawn protests from politicians, artists and activists, who say the festival should not provide a forum to MusicAeterna during wartime.
“He belongs to the system of Putin,” Vasyl Khymynets, the Ukrainian ambassador to Austria, said in an interview. “He hasn’t criticized this brutal war, yet he has the chance to be presented on one of the most famous stages in Europe and probably in the world.”
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The esteemed pianist Evgeny Kissin, a frequent performer in Salzburg, said that while he would not object if Currentzis appeared with a Western orchestra, MusicAeterna’s ties to the Russian government were problematic.
“In the current situation, groups funded by the Russian state should not be allowed to perform in the civilized world,” said Kissin, who was born in Moscow and is now based in Prague, citing Russia’s “criminal war in Ukraine.”
Currentzis, through his representatives, declined to comment.
Since founding MusicAeterna in Siberia in 2004, Currentzis has sought to defy labels. He is known as an uncompromising classical musician but has also earned a reputation as a punk, a goth and an anarchist. Born in Athens, he went to Russia in his 20s to study music and now carries a Russian passport. (Putin awarded him citizenship by presidential decree in 2014, the Russia news media reported.)
Currentzis began his career as an outsider trying to build artistic centers away from the traditional bases of Moscow and St. Petersburg, including at the Novosibirsk State Opera in Siberia and in the industrial city of Perm. He stood up to the Russian authorities, including in 2017, when his friend and collaborator Kirill Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s most prominent theater directors, was detained in Moscow, a move seen as retribution for his critical portrayals of life under Putin.
More recently, Currentzis has worked to win the support of the establishment, finding a partner in VTB Bank, which since 2016 has helped finance MusicAeterna’s concerts and recording projects. With that bank’s support, Currentzis opened a base for the ensemble in St. Petersburg in 2019.
The invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 24, coincided with his 50th birthday. That same day, he led a birthday concert with MusicAeterna in St. Petersburg, where he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He performed the same piece again two days later in Moscow before an audience of more than 1,500 people, according to Russian news reports.
Soon after, the ensemble began to face questions about its benefactors, and a performance at the Philharmonie de Paris was canceled while one at the Bavarian State Opera was postponed to 2024. In Vienna, a planned benefit concert in April in support of Ukraine was canceled after activists and officials — including Khymynets, the ambassador — objected to the idea of featuring Russian artists at an event for Ukraine.
Some presenters were concerned about hosting an ensemble with ties to several prominent Russian officials, including Andrey Kostin, the chairman of VTB Bank; Alexander Beglov, the governor of St. Petersburg; and Elvira Nabiullina, the governor of Russia’s central bank. They all sit on the board of the MusicAeterna Cultural Initiatives Support Fund.
Others were sympathetic to Currentzis and his musicians, believing that if they expressed opinions on the war they could face punishment in Russia. As criticism of the group has intensified, they have faced pressure to speak out against the invasion, and to secure financing outside Russia.
In March, SWR Symphony Orchestra in Germany, where Currentzis is the chief conductor, issued a statement calling for peace, though it did not criticize the Russian government or Putin. “Teodor Currentzis and the members of the SWR Symphony Orchestra unequivocally support the common appeal for peace and reconciliation,” the statement said.
Louwrens Langevoort is the artistic and managing director of the Cologne Philharmonic. In an interview, he recalled that Currentzis, while smoking a cigarette in his dressing room after an appearance with the SWR Symphony there in late March, said he longed for an “ideal world” in which he could work in both Russia and the West.
“He was really aware that something has to be done,” Langevoort said. “Pressure came from all sides and he — for reasons of safety for all parties living in Russia — would not make any declaration.”
Even some of Currentzis’s staunchest supporters are pushing the ensemble to find new backers. Among them are Matthias Naske, the artistic director of the Vienna Konzerthaus, who said in an interview that his hall would not engage MusicAeterna until “completely independent financing of the orchestra is secured.” Currentzis will still be allowed to perform there, he added.
“Teodor Currentzis is an exceptional artist who uses the power of music to stand up for humanistic values,” he said. “He feels responsible and sticks to his ensembles in Russia that he has built up there. It is wrong to punish him for not abandoning his musicians.”
In Salzburg, leaders of the festival have sought to counter accusations that they are endorsing Russia’s cultural aims. The opening ceremony of the festival on Tuesday included a work by Valentin Silvestrov, Ukraine’s best known living composer. A keynote speech, by the Bulgarian-German writer Ilija Trojanow, was titled “The Tone of War, the Keys of Peace.”
Hinterhäuser said he did not want to force MusicAeterna’s artists to speak out against the war.
“They are not soldiers; they are not responsible for what’s happening,” he said. “It’s not a collective guilt.”
The festival’s other ties to Russia have also come under scrutiny. One of the sponsors of the production of the double bill is GES-2 House of Culture, which is affiliated with the Russian oligarch Leonid Mikhelson. He was sanctioned by the United Kingdom and Canada — though, crucially for Salzburg, not in the European Union — after the invasion.
Currentzis, who made his debut in Salzburg in 2017 with Mozart’s Requiem and “La Clemenza di Tito,” has tried to shift the focus back to his art. Last week at the festival, he led a performance of Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” Symphony, featuring members of the MusicAeterna choir and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.
Alexander Meraviglia-Crivelli, the artistic and executive director of that orchestra, said he had asked his players after the invasion whether they wanted to go forward with the concert. Nearly all wanted to play, he recalled, though a Ukrainian musician expressed concerns about appearing alongside Russian artists.
“We strongly believe that in the arts and education, exclusion and cancellation are the wrong thing,” he said.
Currentzis’s defenders have pointed to his performance of the Shostakovich symphony, which was written to remember the 1941 massacre of Jews near Kyiv by Nazis, as a statement of his views on the current war. But the performance was planned long before, and Currentzis made no remarks at the concert.
At the end of the final movement, he held the hall in prolonged silence. Then he smiled as the audience erupted into a standing ovation that lasted for more than seven minutes.
Joshua Barone contributed reporting from Salzburg, Austria, and Milana Mazaeva from New York.