The row of Russian sponsors overshadows the opening of the Salzburg festival | Classical music

The official opening of one of the biggest classical music festivals in the world is overshadowed by the appearance of a conductor whose orchestra and choir are financed by a bank controlled by the Russian government.

Cultural commentators have described Austria’s Salzburg Festival, which also receives sponsorship funds from a foundation with close ties to the Kremlin, as being in the grip of Vladimir Putin’s influence. Along with other classical music events in the region, they say it has turned into a haven for dubious and often opaque cultural-corporate partnerships, dubbed “toxic sponsorship”.

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

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

The festival, which has 174 productions through August 31 and for which it sells 225,000 tickets, is partly sponsored by oligarch Leonid Mikhelson’s foundation, which is subject to sanctions from the UK and Canada, but not from the EU.

Markus Hinterhäuser, the head of the Salzburg Festival, has strongly defended its decision not to cancel the sold-out performance, although other venues in Munich, Paris and Vienna have canceled Currentzis concerts in recent weeks. Hinterhäuser, who first engaged Currentzis at the festival when he arrived in 2017, described the star conductor as the antithesis of Putin. “I see his whole way of being like a counter-model to (Putin’s),” he recently told Austrian media, adding that musicAeterna is made up of “musicians from different backgrounds, mainly Russians, but also Ukrainians”.

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

The festival director said Currentzis was unfairly forced to take sides – arguing to stand against Putin and his invasion of Ukraine could put his life and that of his musicians at risk, adding that as an orchestra private, ensembles do not have the protection of a state orchestra. would appreciate.

“Currentzis never sided with Putin at all…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 executioner here” , Hinterhäuser said in an interview.

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

Prior to the so-called “Fall Currentzis” or the Currentzis case, the festival had already come under scrutiny for its ties to other sponsors. Solway, a Swiss-based mining company owned by Russian billionaire Aleksandr Bronstein, has been accused of human rights abuses at a Guatemalan nickel mine. Solway has denied any wrongdoing. But after failing to meet a deadline set by festival president Kristina Hammer to respond to the allegations in a “detailed, objective and transparent review”, she announced earlier this month that she would be cutting ties with the company, which had sponsored the festival’s children’s program.

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Separately, the festival has severed ties for the time being with two former principal performers, Anna Netrebko, Russian soprano and conductor Valery Gergiev, due to their close ties to Putin.

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

Alexander Strauch, composer and author, called on him for more transparency and urgent political intervention.

“We know that Putin uses culture as a weapon of propaganda,” he said in an interview with NDR TV channel.

Christoph Lieben-Seutter, director of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, has come under fire for allowing a recent Currentzis concert to take place. “To accuse Currentzis of not having known before the outbreak of the war that the bank (VTB) might one day fall out of favor, is absurd,” he told NDR, defending his decision to continue hosting him.

Currentzis has yet to respond to the scathing reviews. But long-term observers say he now has a darker figure on stage, having ditched the flashy shoes and clothes for an understated, dark, monk-like outfit. He made a habit of choosing mournful pieces of music for his musicians, such as Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss, written in the 1940s in response to the destruction of German cities during the Second World War, or the Sixth Symphony by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky , an anguished requiem. . Earlier this week, also in Salzburg, he performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, whose first movement recalls the Nazi massacre of 33,000 Jews in 1941 at Babi Yar, near Kyiv. In March this year, a Russian missile hit near a memorial park that commemorates the victims.

Salzburg Festival Director Markus Hinterhäuser and President Helga Rabl-Städler in 2021. Photo: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstock

After a recent sold-out performance by Currentzis’ ensemble at the Elbphilharmonie, whose organizers were quick to point out hosted Ukrainian refugees and also involved Ukrainian musicians, Mischa Kreiskoff, the one of Germany’s leading music critics, said: “The musical choices can be seen as a commentary in themselves – especially the Strauss… they are darkly persuasive. He said Currentzis was doing nothing less than trying to save his orchestra: “He knows he’s under threat and the musicians feel it too…you see it in the passion with which they play. It must be very difficult for them right now.

Another reviewer, Robert Braunmüller, wrote, “No one currently penetrates Shostakovich’s emotional world more deeply than this controversial conductor.”

The Austrian government has responded to criticism of the most prestigious event on its cultural calendar, saying it is working on new guidelines to govern the sponsorship of cultural events, which will be released this fall, and the Foreign Ministry appointed 27-year-old festival president Helga Rabl-Städler as the new special adviser for foreign culture last month.

The Salzburg festival sought to appease critics by giving the floor to the Bulgarian-German writer Ilija Trojanow, who will deliver a speech at the opening whose central theme will be the relationship between art and power, “including sponsors of artists close to autocratic systems”.

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