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The best French conductor is moving to Baden-Baden

The Trojan horse of the Greeks, a veritable, black extra man nag, attacks Cassandra, the princess who foresees disaster.

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The best French conductor is moving to Baden-Baden

The Trojan horse of the Greeks, a veritable, black extra man nag, attacks Cassandra, the princess who foresees disaster. It's like a symbolic rape of the warner on the milky glowing passerelle, right in front of the audience.

Between the two – we are in the Staatshaus in Cologne, the endless alternative quarters of the opera house, which has been closed for renovation for years, creative stage solutions are needed – François-Xavier Roth pursues his work as general music director. The 51-year-old, slender man with an almost bald head is sitting in a black shirt on a chair and, with parallel, very minimalistic arm movements, raises a pencil. That's enough.

Authority doesn't need a grand gesture. Personal magic only. And that's why here, in this impressive performance of Hector Berlioz' five-hour monumental epic "Les Troyens", intensely stirring, seductive sounds of a special kind are unleashed as if in a bubbling witch's cauldron.

The Gürzenich Orchestra is only moderately large. The six obbligato harps stand outside the sounding magic circle. The ophicleide, the dark murmuring folding horn so characteristic of Berlioz, sits inside. A huge choir spreads out on the amphitheatrical, bare black stage, in the middle of which the orchestra and its director are enthroned.

The gods, more and more tousled by the course of history, are a dozen extras. Many, many soloists sing only one solo number each in this station-like, episodic aria course that alternates from Troy to Carthage. Director Johannes Erath has cleverly staged it as an unusually witty, even circus-like mixture of Offenbachiade and great tragedy - it keeps tipping over, at best it's both at the same time. Standing out from the crowd of singers are the mighty Casssandre (Isabelle Drout), the touching but dry Didon (Veronica Simeoni) and the high-pitched, somewhat monotonous Enea Scala as his heroic namesake Énée.

But the crown, which also glitters with many spatial music effects, for an irresistible mixture of grandeur and deeper meaning that is not boring for a second, wispy plays of colors and focused attack, vital rhythm and agogic laissez-faire, sadness and sensually vibrant love lust, which once again deserves François-Xavier Roth . The long time best French conductor, who doesn't do anything in everyday life. It is one of the most universal anyway.

Roth can do everything. He digs into baroque treasures, is not afraid of Bach or Beethoven, masters the long 19th century on its main repertoire paths as well as rarity side paths, loves the early 20th century, which he makes sound excitingly new, but is also a master of classical modernism and a furious lawyer and trustee of the completely new.

There is hardly a second time today such a master of everything. He does this with his French special ensemble Les Siècles, which changes its instruments with the respective epoch up to the present day. The former assistant to John Eliot Gardiner and Colin Davis also makes the rough, brightly colored Les Sieclès sound audible with the Berlin Philharmonic, which Simon Rattle actually brushed more on the virtuoso classicism of Stravinsky.

Roth has been Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and Associate Artist of the Philharmonie de Paris since 2017. And since 2015, the Gürzenich and the Cologne Opera have also been Roth's adopted home.

But that will change now. The trained flautist, son of the famous Alsatian organist Daniel Roth, will change his job spectacularly after ten years: in 2025 he will move from the Rhine to the Oos, from North Rhine-Westphalia to Baden-Württemberg. He becomes chief conductor of the SWR Symphony Orchestra.

The personal details, which became known the day before the memorable Berlioz performance in Cologne, are half a comeback and doubly remarkable: after six years, François-Xavier Roth inherits Teodor Currentzis, who is almost the same age and who deliberately stages himself artistically as a chameleon.

The Greek with a Russian passport has not only had trouble explaining himself to his free ensemble MusicAeterna since the start of Putin's Ukraine war due to his financial obligations to Russian sponsors and politicians. He has also taken it upon himself to form a new orchestra from the two SWR orchestras that were forcibly merged in 2016, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra.

It was a win-win situation for both participants: Currentzis was able to start from scratch in terms of content and sound in Stuttgart, Freiburg and Baden-Baden, but had the media backup and the station's willingness to tour behind it. And the newly formed orchestra, which was not free of pain, unexpectedly had a glamorous, much-sought-after boss.

The Roth appointment now proves twice that this plan worked: Because Roth is full of praise for the development work of his predecessor, including his activities such as pre-talks, workshop insights, night concerts and late shows on the radio. After all, Roth was music director of the SWR Symphony Orchestra in Baden-Baden and Freiburg from 2011 until it was dissolved in 2016. He knew very well where he was returning to.

And Roth also says clearly: "My appointment for an initial period of five years and 14 working weeks has nothing to do with a reassessment of Currentzis' role in Russia. We've been talking about this change since before the war. Why else would Teodor have extended his then three-year contract by only three years in 2021?”

Which makes sense. Currentzis, who has asked three times to remain associated with the orchestra – from himself, SWR and Roth – now has little time left. In the current season, he will only be present for three periods from December due to various projects that have been postponed due to the pandemic; he will only conduct seven concerts in the SWR broadcasting area.

In addition, he has – planned for a long time but now pushed by contemporary history – launched a new orchestra called Utopia, which is rehearsing and starting in Luxembourg these days. This time, however, financed from the west, primarily through a foundation by Dietrich Mateschitz (Red Bull, Servus-TV). In this context, too, Currentzis still does not give any interviews, the first tour program - Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel - does not seem very spectacular.

François-Xavier Roth will continue to shine with imagination, courage, experimentation and passion for new discoveries at Les Siècles, in Cologne, Baden-Baden and also on his award-winning CDs at Harmonia Mundi. And he will also appear again in Donaueschingen with the orchestra that is traditional for this; Currentzis' only attempt (even before his SWR appointment) was a much-lauded farce that never materialized.

Alongside Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss, Roth has performed a great deal of music by Georg Friedrich Haas, Philippe Manoury and Martin Matalon with the Gürzenich Orchestra. The project "Fanfares for a new Beginning", in which ten important composers were each commissioned with a short wind piece during the Corona pandemic and thus sent a resounding signal of confidence in a phase of cultural standstill, was also his initiative.

Conciseness, variability, straightforwardness, poetry, authenticity - and all this at the highest level, with a French charm. Children's and hands-on concerts are an integral part of his work, as is the diverse and sustained support of aspiring musicians. Unfortunately, François-Xavier Roth has hardly any competition in his generation in the opera or on the concert stage. He even managed to get an audience of millions enthusiastic about classical music on French television

So Cologne can still count itself lucky and the SWR can look forward to the first concerts from 2024. And in Cologne, a rich, full-bodied Berlioz that is completely different from the one that Roth mixed with Les Siècles at the festival in his birthplace, La Côte-Saint-André, lingers on for a long, very long time. And if the gods of refurbishment mean well, then Francois-Xavier Roth may perhaps once again unfold his art of beguiling sound in Cologne's main opera house on Offenbachplatz.

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