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Conductor

2 Mar '20

Concert
2 Mar '20

Teodor Currentzis

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During the years 1886-1889, Richard Strauss worked – partly in parallel – on the three tone poems that forged his reputation of being an "orchestra magician": Macbeth, Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration. The latter doesn’t owe anything to a literary impulse, but results from a spontaneous idea the composer had "to evoke through a symphonic poem the hour of death of a man, probably an artist, who had strived throughout his life to reach the highest goals".
This man has no name; to equate him with Strauss, then 25 years old, would probably be somewhat shortsighted. The focus is far more on the ideal type of an artist who has strived throughout his life to create something lasting. To a certain extent, this tone poem raises the question of the traces we leave behind after our death. However unsatisfactory an answer expressed in words might seem, Strauss' music has lost none of its fascination to date.
Formally speaking, Death and Transfiguration is a sonata movement with an introduction and an extended coda. The prelude depicts the gradual withdrawal of a terminally ill patient: the pulse weakens, punctuated from time to time by a sigh. Then comes a sudden awakening (main section, Allegro), accompanied by pain and fever that trigger a flood of memories. From these images of life, a theme gradually emerges, "an ideal that could not be accomplished because it was not meant to be accomplished by man," according to Strauss. However, this theme is only heard in its full and transfigured form after the artist's death, signalled by drumming on the tam-tam.
Gustav Mahler's First Symphony, a purely instrumental work of classical structure, is nowadays considered to be the most traditional of the composer's nine symphonies. This has not always been the case. When the work was premiered in Budapest in 1889, the audience heard a symphonic poem in two parts and five movements. At a new performance four years later in Hamburg, Mahler explained the content of each movement and gave the piece a new title: “Titan, a symphonic poem in the form of a symphony”. It was only when the work was published in 1899 that this symphony finally appeared in its final four-movement form, without any programmatic headings. Mahler's ambition to innovate in the symphonic field explains this uncertain approach. To achieve his goal, the composer made use of previous compositions as well as melodies and music evoking "living images". He also drew his inspiration from extra-musical sources, such as the idea of the awakening of spring in the first movement or parodistic engravings in the slow movement. He then processed this disparate material according to symphonic principles, with a triumphal finale as his objective. Nevertheless, this work already reveals typical Mahlerian traits in the juxtaposition of splendour and misery, the expression of inner conflict, the choice of a straightforward popular expression or, on the contrary, a distorted triviality. Harmonies born from "natural sounds" (1st movement, introduction) or a grotesque staging of the "Frères Jacques" canon (3rd movement): who else but Mahler could have written such music? And when, in the end, the most profound despair turns into a solemn apotheosis, it is already the Mahlerian concept of the symphony as a world creation drama that is taking shape.

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Good to know

Born in Athens in 1972, conductor Teodor Currentzis is currently one of the classical scene’s most prominent figures. Not only is his appearance unusual; his career, which began in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, is just as astonishing. It was here, on the periphery of the musical world, that Currentzis founded MusicaAeterna, the ensemble that moved in 2011 with its conductor to Perm to take the music world by storm from the Urals. Currentzis was awarded the Echo Klassik Prize for his Mozart cycle (Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni); in 2016, the magazine Opernwelt named him "Conductor of the Year". Currentzis has built his trademark on his absolute dedication to music, coupled with stupendous knowledge of the works he conducts. The fact that he brushes the habits of the concert business against the grain, from rehearsal times to orchestra seating rules and dress code, does not please everyone, but is part of the concept: "Music is always an expedition to an unknown land. This requires open-minded people", says Currentzis.

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