Musical revolution flowers in remote Russian city

PERM, Stuart Williams- In a provincial music institute a thousand kilometres from Moscow, deep in Russia's Urals, a conductor and his orchestra rehearse as the spring light floods through the windows and the local trams rumble by.
But despite the far-flung location in the city of Perm, these musicians are no provincial journeymen. They are the Greek Teodor Currentzis, 41, one of the world's mostly highly-regarded conductors, and his Musica Aeterna band of Russian and European musicians.

Musical revolution flowers in remote Russian city
Their presence in a region known in Russia as a backwater complete with a notorious network of Soviet-era prison camps is part of one of the most audacious cultural projects in post-Soviet Russia.
"Think of a monster opening its jaws. Graaaah!" Currentzis tells his orchestra as he explains a passage from Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring", obsessively clicking his fingers and stamping his feet.
With his shoulder-length hair and sporting a stud in his ear, Currentzis has the air more of a rock musician than a conductor. He inspires his musicians by referring to techno music, Russian folk dances -- anything but musical theory.
"I am here as I want to create a micro climate for real creation. This is something that is very difficult to do in a capital city," Currentzis told AFP in an interview during Perm's recent annual Diaghilev festival which he lead.
Just two years after Currentzis arrived with his orchestra in 2011, the Perm Theatre picked up more nominations and prizes at Russia's top Golden Mask arts awards in 2013 than either the Bolshoi or the Mariinsky in Saint Petersburg.
Its biggest hits have included a new production of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" and the ballet "Les Noces" by Stravinsky in the Russian premiere of the choreography by Jiri Kylian.
"We have our own peace here. We are not involved in the crazy life of the capital. We have time to create a handmade product and not a factory product," Currentzis said.
"I say to people in Moscow - if you want to listen to high quality music then you can come here to Perm."
--- 'Beautiful things must be rare' --
Currentzis rails against the modern classical music industry which he says is ruined by too many concerts, robotic musicians and political demands imposed by capitals.
"Conductors destroyed musicians. And of course the conservatoires. Music is to do with the more metaphysical part of ourselves, not the technical, pragmatic side," he said.
He said there should be fewer concerts, but that they should be special.
"I think the beautiful things must be rare. If the world was full of diamonds scattered around the street, nobody would pick up the diamonds."
Currentzis describes himself and his musicians as "19th-century romantics". Rather than any conductor, he instead cites his inspirations as the Greek 20th-century poet Miltos Sachtouris as well as TS Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Perm's provinciality is something of a standing joke among Russians -- in Chekhov's play "Three Sisters", the female protagonists spend most of their time yearning to get out of the region and go to Moscow.
But its musical theatre traces its history back to the 1870s when it was built with donations from wealthy businessmen who included the grandfather of the great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who lived in Perm until his mid-teens.
By a twist of fate, the Mariinsky (then known as Kirov) ballet company was evacuated to Perm from Saint Petersburg during World War II and spent four seasons in the city, leaving behind one of Russia's best ballet schools that exists to this day.
Though Perm has fast risen to musical sublimity in Russia, its cultural future is uncertain.
Currentzis was appointed in 2011 as part of a drive by the former Perm region governor Oleg Chirkunov known as the "Perm cultural revolution" to turn the city into an international cultural hub, drawing inspiration from Spain's Bilbao.
But since Chirkunov resigned in 2012, many of the city's more ambitious projects for urban regeneration have fallen by the wayside under new governor Viktor Basargin, a former federal minister.
According to its general director Marc de Mauny, the theatre is now facing tricky and potentially fateful negotiations with the region for a budget in line with its ambitions.
"The Perm 'cultural revolution' bubble more or less burst," de Mauny told AFP.
He said that while the theatre's budget doubled after Currentzis arrived and it is seeking more funds from private sponsorship, "it is hard to produce what we want with what we have".
"The question is whether we will be able to maintain the level we have set in the first two seasons," he said, revealing the theatre has had to cancel and postpone several planned new productions.
But optimistic Currentzis, who likes to speak of his orchestra "working without a clock, without time", is single-minded in his quest to bring his audiences a unique musical experience.
"Work is work and life is life. For us, we do not have work. Music is our life," he said.

Wednesday, June 12th 2013
Stuart Williams

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