Can there be yang without yin?
Should Furtwängler and Karajan be condemned for perpetuating their careers in a toxic political environment? Should musicians with Russian connections be demonised? Difficult questions which, like Rinzai Zen Buddhist koans, are translogical queries which have no obvious answer. I was reminded of these troubling questions by the difficult position some contemporary musicians are being put in due to their varying connections with Russia.
Estonian conductor Kristan Järvi's sin was to publish an ambivalent statement on his relationship with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic orchestra which he is the Music Director and Founding Conductor of. The Baltic Sea Philharmonic brings together musicians from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and, yes, Russia. So Jarvi's ambivalence can probably be explained by an understandable desire not to alienate musicians with unknown political allegiances who play very well for him.
The purpose of this post is not to pass judgement on the political alignments of the musicians featured here. Instead it is to present positive yang to counterbalance the real or perceived dark yin peddled elsewhere. One of Kristan Järvi's notable achievements with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic is his recording of Henk De Vlieger's arrangement of music from Wagner's four Ring operas. De Vlieger's arrangement, like his similar treatments of Parsifal, Tristan and Die Meistersinger, is a triumph, as is the playing of Järvi's geo-politically diverse orchestra. But what makes this CD unique is that it was recorded in a venue the orchestra plays in regularly, the main hall of the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum on the island of Usedom off the Baltic coast of Germany.
From 1936 to 1945 Peenemünde hosted the largest armaments centre in Europe. 12,000 people, many of them forced labour and POWs, worked on guided weapons there, most famously on the world’s first cruise missiles and the first ever functioning large-scale rockets, the V1s and V2s. Jarvi's Wagner orchestral adventure is a bold and brave project. Peenemünde Turbine Hall may not have the perfect acoustic of Snape Maltings, but its political resonance reminds us that, pace Furtwängler and Karajan, without darkness there cannot be light.
Yang and yin are balanced more controversially in the case of the Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis. Because of his alleged funding by Russian oligarchs - did someone mention Daniel Barenboim and Abu Dhabi or Simon Rattle and China? - Currentzis' feet have been permanently nailed to the floor of classical's naughty corner. In that corner he has the esteemed company, for varying reasons, of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Peter Gelb, Daniele Gatti, Alan Davey, Suisse-Romande Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan, Chi-Chi Nwanoku, Vienna Philharmonic, BBC Radio 3, Jaap van Zweden, Anna Netrebko, Metropolitan Opera, et al.
Noteworthy, if musically as well as politically controversial, is Teodor Currentzis' anthology of Rameau's music The Sound of Light. This is big band Rameau played by Currentzis' Musicaeterna ensemble. It is mixed by the producer as a sonic spectacular which just might appeal to classical's bass literate new audience. You could not get much further from 'authentic' Rameau. But does this matter? Were Stokowski's audience-pleasing Bach transcriptions or Hamilton Harty's Handel arrangements authentic? When will classical music learn that what may appeal to new listeners - de Vlieger's Wagner and Currentzis' Rameau - often does not appeal to the cognoscenti? Should musicians with Russian connections be automatically demonised? Can there be yang without yin?