Saturday, April 20

Russian sponsorship row overshadows opening of Salzburg festival | classical music

The official opening of one of the world’s leading classical music festivals is being overshadowed by the appearance of a conductor whose orchestra and choir are funded by a bank controlled by the Russian government.

Cultural commentators have described Austria’s Salzburg festival, which is also receiving sponsorship money from a foundation with close ties to the Kremlin, of being in the grip of Vladimir Putin’s influence. Along with other classical music events in the region, they argue it has turned itself into a paradise for dubious and often intransparent cultural-corporate partnerships, referred to as “toxic sponsorship”.

The main focus of the row is on Teodor Currentzis, a Greek-Russian conductor, who on Tuesday is due to open the Salzburg festival with a performance by his ensemble, the St Petersburg-based musicAeterna. The orchestra is funded by VTB Bank, which is majority state-owned and sometimes referred to as Putin’s “private bank”, and is a western-sanctioned Russian company.

Russia’s central bank chief and opera-lover, Elvira Nabiullina, is a member of the foundation behind the ensemble, and the Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom recently sponsored a national tour.

The festival, which has 174 productions running until 31 August, for which it is selling 225,000 tickets, is in part sponsored by the foundation of oligarch Leonid Mikhelson, who has been sanctioned by the UK and Canada, though not by the EU.

Markus Hinterhäuser, the head of the Salzburger Festspiele, has staunchly defended his decision not to cancel the sell-out performance, despite other venues in Munich, Paris and Vienna having pulled Currentzis concerts in recent weeks. Hinterhäuser, who first engaged Currentzis at the festival when he joined in 2017, has described the star conductor as the antithesis to Putin. “I see his whole way of being as a counter model to that (of Putin),” he recently told Austrian media, adding that musicAeterna consists of “musicians from different origins, mainly Russian, but also Ukrainian”.

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Hinterhäuser had already faced criticism after inviting Putin to the 2020 premiere of a Gazprom-sponsored performance of the Modest Mussorgsky opera, Boris Godunov, which did not take place in the end due to the death of its conductor, Mariss Jansons.

The festival head said that Currentzis is being unfairly forced to take sides – arguing to position himself against Putin and his invasion of Ukraine could be life-threatening to him and his musicians, adding that as a private orchestra the ensembles lacks the protection a state orchestra would enjoy.

“Currentzis has never in the slightest taken sides with Putin… now there’s a law that could mean 15 years in prison just for using the word war… we should take that into account before playing the hangman here,” Hinterhäuser said in an interview.

Currentzis, he said, has signaled his anti-war stance having recently planned to give a benefit concert for Ukrainian refugees in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, which was canceled after protests by, among others, Ukraine’s ambassador to Austria, who accused Currentzis of being “part of System Putin”, and the Red Cross.

Prior to what is being referred to as ‘Fall Currentzis’ or the Currentzis Affair, the festival had already been under scrutiny for its links to other sponsors. Solway, a Swiss-based mining company which belongs to Russian billionaire Aleksandr Bronstein, has been accused of human rights abuses in a Guatemalan nickel mine. Solway has denied wrongdoing. But after it failed to meet a deadline set by the festival’s president, Kristina Hammer, to respond to the allegations in a “detailed, objective and transparent review”, she announced earlier this month that she would cut ties with the company, which had sponsored the festival’s children’s programme.

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Separately, the festival has severed links for the time being with two previous mainstay performers, Anna Netrebko, the Russian operatic soprano and conductor, Valery Gergiev, over their close links to Putin.

Longtime observers of the classical music world have said the problems in Salzburg, which relies on sponsorship for about 75% of its funding, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Alexander Strauch, a composer and author, has called for it to show more transparency and for urgent political intervention.

“We know that Putin is utilizing culture as a propaganda weapon,” he said in an interview with broadcaster NDR.

Christoph Lieben-Seutter, director of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, faced criticism for allowing a recent Currentzis concert to go ahead. “To accuse Currentzis of not having known before the outbreak of war that the (VTB) bank might one day fall out of favour, it is absurd,” he told NDR, defending his decision to continue to host him.

Currentzis has yet to respond to the scathing criticism. But long-term observers say he now cuts a more sombre figure on stage, having ditched flashy shoes and clothing for low-key, dark, monk-like attire. He has taken to choosing mournful pieces of music for his musicians to play, such as Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, written in the 1940s in response to the destruction of German cities in the second world war, or Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, an anguished requiem . Earlier this week, also at Salzburg, he performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, the first movement of which recalls the 1941 massacre by Nazis of 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar, near Kyiv. In March this year, a Russian missile struck close to a memorial park that commemorates the victims.

Salzburg Festival director, Markus Hinterhäuser and president, Helga Rabl-Städler, in 2021. Photograph: Action Press/REX/Shutterstock

After a recent sell-out performance by Currentzis’ ensemble at the Elbphilharmonie, which organizers were quick to emphasize was attended by Ukrainian refugees and also involved Ukrainian musicians, Mischa Kreiskoff, a leading German music critic, said: “The choices of music can be seen as a commentary in itself – especially the Strauss… they are of a dark persuasion.” He said that Currentzis was doing nothing less than trying to save his orchestra: “He knows it is under threat and the musicians feel it too… you see it in the passion with which they perform. It must be very difficult for them right now”.

Another critic, Robert Braunmüller, wrote: “No one right now penetrates the emotional world of Shostakovich more profoundly than this controversial conductor”.

Austria’s government has responded to the criticism towards the most prestigious event in its cultural calendar, by saying it is working on new guidelines to govern sponsorship of cultural events, to be published this autumn, and the foreign ministry last month appointed the festival’s president of 27 years, Helga Rabl-Städler, as its new special adviser for foreign culture.

The Salzburg festival has sought to dampen the criticism by giving the stage to Bulgarian-German writer, Ilija Trojanow, who is to hold a speech at the opening, the central theme of which will be the relationship between art and power, “including sponsors of artists with close relations to autocratic systems”.

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