Maestro Takes A Stand With Frenetic Bruckner (Musicians Stand, Too)

Teodor Currentzis conducted his orchestra Utopia in Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony at the Berliln Philharmonie. (Photos courtesy of Utopia)

BERLIN — In 2019, when conductor Teodor Currentzis made his North America debut with his 180-member orchestra and chorus MusicAeterna at Manhattan’s The Shed performing Verdi’s Requiem, New York collectively gasped. The remaining concerts sold out within micro-seconds of the final note being played on that dazzlingly memorable opening night. Currentzis instilled a life force into Verdi’s 19th-century work that connected with new audiences. I was among the listeners. Turn to 2024. Currentzis detours his attention to Utopia, an “international orchestra founded by the conductor.” Its musicians represent more than 20 countries, including Russians and Ukrainians who collaborate alongside each other.

For this current European Utopia tour — a program of Bruckner’s Ninth as the sole offering — Currentzis gathered a mighty 112 musicians to serve his vision. I stopped counting the desks of violins and cellos at 10 each. If there were more, they were not in my vision. In the spirit of the Currentzis convention, most of the musicians (not cellos and double basses) stood when they were playing the hour-long-plus symphony. The official program does not list the musicians’ names. All attention is on Currentzis. 

As in the Verdi Requiem, he startles again, not by infusing life into the score but by sucking the marrow and blood out of Bruckner’s last symphony with a conviction so debilitating that all hope for a moment of spiritual transcendence or nuance is lost. Where his Verdi had life-affirming agency, his Bruckner dies.

Most of the Utopia musicians (not cellos and double basses) stood when they were playing the hour-long-plus symphony.

For this one-night Berlin performance in the Philharmonie Berlin, the modernist home of the Berlin Philharmonic, on May 16, the not-filled hall endured an uncomfortable moment between the end of the orchestra’s tuning and the appearance of the conductor. When Currentzis arrived, the pummelling began. Where there were three fortissimos in the score’s opening movement, Currentzis requested four of five. Incredibly, the members of the orchestra responded. The timpanist could only achieve the necessary power for his motifs and drum rolls by raising his mallets high above his head to gain the required propulsion. Violinists gyrated. Their hands visibly stretched. The full physicality of each member of the orchestra was evident.

Bruckner’s score is schematic. His prescribed order with episodic, chromatic climaxes makes it an easier vehicle for a conductor to maneuver. The challenge for the interpreter is to achieve the measure of spiritual transcendence and connections to God that Bruckner was seeking during his nine years composing the piece.

Despite his organizational clarity, Bruckner sets challenges. What is a conductor to do with the mighty evocation of the grandeur of God in the full “D” unison in the first movement? Currentzis’ answer is true to form. He is unequivocal. His answer is to imbue the moment with force. It would be wrong to say that the notes lost their tonal resonance, because the full measure of the harmonic overtones was retained. But in the treatment of this episode and across the three movements of the symphony where amplitude was called for, the effect of the pivotal moments soon lost their vigor, and the symphony lost its reason to be. By the end of so much insistence, the score was left limp and helpless. 

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 was the sole work on the Utopia program at the Berlin Philharmonie.

In moments that Bruckner marks “innig” (intimate and tender), Currentzis’ response was measured. How do you achieve intimacy with such vast resources? With rhythm and sound as the key drivers to his interpretation, Currentzis’ musicians obeyed with precision and attack throughout. You could not fault their dedication.

Throughout the three movements, Currentzis played with degrees and disseminations of vibrato. The sashaying of full vibrato from the strings contrasting with absence of vibrato in the woodwinds came across as unsettling. Perhaps deliberately so. Currentzis’ Bruckner Nine is a management of extremes.

Expectedly, after an overly choreographed and pretentious silence at the symphony’s end, the audience roared.