Kirill Petrenko, the morning after

On the night of his coronation at the Berlin Philharmonic, Kirill Petrenko was conducting a rehearsal of Die Walküre at Bayreuth. No part of the Berlin big bang was allowed to disrupt his musical routines. If he raised a glass to celebrate, it will probably have been half full.

Berlin’s biggest tabloid newspaper, Bild, splashed his election on the front page, opposite the slump at Real Madrid.

bild-1

Munich’s deadly serious Süddeutsche Zeitung devoted the whole of page three to him, praising him as the world’s most sought after maestro. Die Zeit headlined its article ‘Maestro ohne Mythos’, rearranging the title of my conducting history, The Maestro Myth, a title that has since become cliché.

Overnight, I wrote an op-ed for Bild which was headlined ‘Habemus Petrenko’, a reference to the relief felt at the Philharmonic that a man of substance had emerged in their white smoke.

You can read the article in German here, in Spanish here at El Pais (El candidato del compromiso) and in the original English here in the Spectator.

Among other things, I write:

His shyness is a problem. The Berlin Phil is a flagship ensemble for German culture and its leader needs to be seen and heard on the high media seas, leading the fleet to triumph. Petrenko gives few interviews and betrays nothing of his inner self.

Worse, he is completely unknown abroad, in the territories where the Berlin Phil needs to be number one. A few guest appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and the Concertgebouw left no lasting impression. He has never toured Japan or China. He has made hardly any recordings. Berlin will have to build his profile up from scratch before 2018 in order to maintain its myth of being the world’s premier orchestra with the greatest living conductor.

bild petrenko

 

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  • Petrenko is not the first Russian conductor of the Berlin Phil – Leo Borchard was born in Moscow and grew up in St Petersburg.

  • Norman, just for you to know: Your article has apparently not been published by Bild, but by BZ, which is a different paper, though both are owned by the same publishing corporation, Axel Springer. Bild is a nationwide paper, BZ is a local Berlin one. Both rival each other in terms of bad taste and lack of respect for minimum professional and ethical standards. (And yes, there are other tabloids in Germany that usually do respect these standards by and large.)

    • The Bavarian State and the Bayerische Staatsoper have publicly made it known that they would like to persuade Petrenko to extend his contract here in Munich when it expires in 2018. He has made his mark very quickly here as GMD of the Staatsoper, is universally admired by orchestra, chorus and mitglieder of the house generally (not to mention the public), and he has raised the whole game musically at the BSO after the rather obvious turmoils and disappointments (no surprise) of the Kent Nagano era. It will be a very hard post to fill if he leaves in 2018, but it is a great choice (to my mind the clearest choice) for the Berlin Phil, and his appointment as their Chef Dirigent will reap rich rewards for the orchestra, Berlin, and the music world as a whole. I do think it might not be so sensible for him to try and hold two such important posts down simultaneously, as the Staatsoper is a very demanding (and rightly so) post to fill if taken seriously (as Petrenko so brilliantly has). Then again, his extension would probably be for only 2 (perhaps 3) seasons, which is a natural turnover time in terms of planning etc for the Staatsoper’s GMD. Munich could possibly be hard pushed to find the right replacement in time considering they would only have the coming year or two to sort it. Petrenko extending his contract for a couple of seasons would give the Staatsoper some breathing space to look for the right person to fill his shoes (going be hard!). Oh my, what a great appointment. Made my day when it was announced!!! 🙂

  • Thanks very much for this article, Norman, especially the last three sentences.

    There’s one thing I don’t get. Why should anyone feel the need to build up an artificial new “profile” or persona for the man? Just to please the sponsors? They have people in the orchestra who are good at ensuring sufficient media presence, who seem to enjoy twittering etc. Why not simply let him get on with what he’s excellent at?

    All I heard about Mr Petrenko was that he apparently once said giving interviews was a waste of time.

    (Though there is a very pleasant one here: https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/de/interview/3566-5)

    I don’t have a problem with his being shy as a person or “mediensheu”. If that’s what he really is. Or could it be that someone just decided to use the word to give him an aura, and now everyone’s repeating it? He was sitting at a table behind mine in a Berlin pub a few years ago, with a group of musicians, and not one of these people seemed excessively shy. On the contrary, in fact, I’ve rarely seen a group of people have so much fun together and laugh so much in a German pub – in the nicest possible way.

    That said, I do find a certain amount of shyness, modesty and humility – combined with the determination to serve only the music – very refreshing, especially in our narcissistic selfie age.

    As for his apparently being “completely unknown abroad”, that will change once they go on tour with him.

    Another point you mentioned today and yesterday: his Jewishness. Though I rarely consider religion, ethnicity, skin colour, etc. particularly relevant or worth mentioning, in the case of such a high-profile job in Berlin I understand why you wrote about it. I did hear an interesting statement on Deutschlandfunk yesterday in this context: Apparently the Petrenko family felt compelled to emigrate to Europe as a result of increasing anti-Semitism. Do you have any information about that, Norman? If it’s true, why is this not being mentioned more often in the aftermath of yesterday’s appointment, as a shocking, interesting and important biographical detail?

    I’m surprised and delighted with the choice and wish him and the orchestra well.

    • Many Russian families with Jewish backgrounds went that way. Vladimir Jurowski for instance came with his parents to Dresden in or shortly after 1990 for the same reasons.
      Partly because of said rising anti-semitism, and partly simply because they could leave Russia that way for a more prosperous life in the west, because Germany (and Austria) had given a certain amount of people with Jewish backgrounds visa for immigration in the early 1990s. (so called “Kontingentjuden”)

  • It is charming that Mr. Petrenko was selected not simply for expediency, but for serious artistic merit. How delightful that he is considered shy and has a mystique.

    Who cannot resonate to the idea of watching this man rise to the challenge in Berlin; perhaps not unlike King George VI tripping into power just prior to the start of WWII with the world holding its breath…

    And I can’t help but wonder what his gifts and insights are regarding Mahler…and, of course, Mozart…:-)

  • Does KP have any track record with contemporary music ? Or at least music of the last 70 years ? That is surely important

  • Hang on: “He has made hardly any recordings”? Apart that is from a complete cycles of the Rachmaninov and Shostakovich symphonies, a couple of Tchaikovsky CDs, and the complete Rachmaninov piano concertos. Not bad for someone only in his late 30s, and surely better than jumping in with a premature set of the Beethoven symphonies.

  • Getting too well known too early has been a problem too in recent times. Karajan also wasn’t very well known before Vienna and Berlin, and so the history starts with him being already quite refined. That is arguably better than having the childish habits looming forever.

  • Re contemporary repertoire, Petrenko conducted thrilling performances of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten last year in Munich. Absolutely first rate.

  • I was lucky enough to observe Kirill in his early years in Siberia. It’s noteworthy, he grew up in the environment filled up with classical musik, as his late father (and my close friend) Gary Petrenko was a first-class violonist who as an orchestra concertmaster successfuly performed in the USSR and Brasil. Kirill’s mother Olga was one of the country’ best in theory of music, and received a Ph.D. degree. So, “Kira” (this how we call a gold-heared boy who just enjoyed “swimming” in surrounding him great music), besides his obvious genetic links, has great family educational basis cultivating his current deep professional and emotional style. As for his “biographical derail” such as anti-Semitism in the USSR resulted in his family immigration to Europe, I don’t think it was the case. It was rather his parents’ common sense to give talanted son the best musical education possible, which was very hard to do in our matherland during those turmoil times.

    AND, OF COURSE, MY CONGRATS & THE BEST WISHES TO KIRILL AND OLGA!

  • Re contemporary repertoire: last year he conducted outstanding performances of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, he just finished a run of Berg’s Lulu and a world premiere of a new opera by Miroslav Srnka is on the schedule for 2015/2016, all in Munich.

  • …He fell out with Katharina Wagner this month over a change of cast and has told her he will not return…

    KP confided back in summer 2014 he wouldn’t conduct in Bayreuth beyond 2015. The Lance Ryan furore has nothing to do with it.

    • The Bavarian State and the Bayerische Staatsoper have publicly made it known that they would like to persuade Petrenko to extend his contract here in Munich when it expires in 2018. He has made his mark very quickly here as GMD of the Staatsoper, is universally admired by orchestra, chorus and mitglieder of the house generally (not to mention the public), and he has raised the whole game musically at the BSO after the rather obvious turmoils and disappointments (no surprise) of the Kent Nagano era. It will be a very hard post to fill if he leaves in 2018, but it is a great choice (to my mind the clearest choice) for the Berlin Phil, and his appointment as their Chef Dirigent will reap rich rewards for the orchestra, Berlin, and the music world as a whole.

      I do think it might not be so sensible for him to try and hold two such important posts down simultaneously, as the Staatsoper is a very demanding (and rightly so) post to fill if taken seriously (as Petrenko so brilliantly has). Then again, his extension would probably be for only 2 (perhaps 3) seasons, which is a natural turnover time in terms of planning etc for the Staatsoper’s GMD. Munich could possibly be hard pushed to find the right replacement in time considering they would only have the coming year or two to sort it. Petrenko extending his contract for a couple of seasons would give the Staatsoper some breathing space to look for the right person to fill his shoes (going be hard!).

      Oh my, what a great appointment. Made my day when it was announced!!! 🙂

  • The myth of Berlin Philharmonic being the greatest orchestra led by the greatest conductor died with Rattle. He never was – nor he is – the greatest living conductor.

    • The BPO was only ever ONE of the great orchestras, led by several GREAT conductors. “Greatest” does not apply to any orchestra or conductor past or present. All have their merits. Don’t want to be rude, but I believe what you say to be utter rubbish!

  • Allow me to divert your attention from more momentous topics for a second.

    Nothing highlights the infuriating oblivion befalling the immortal S.J. Perelman more than this wretched observation:

    No one, as of this posting (and I’ve scoured the internet with every digital comb at my disposal), has seized the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce the Berlin appointment of Maestro Petrenko by quoting, or at least alluding to, Perelman’s sublime piece, A Farewell to Omsk.

    Ours is a sad epoch indeed.

      • Of that I am keenly aware.

        I was referring, perhaps a little too obliquely, to the lovely digitalconcerthall interview linked to by Brian Cooper further above.

        Towards the end (16:56), Petrenko is asked about his Heimat, which home renders only inadequately, and more pointedly about Heimweh, which is even more inadequately translated as homesickness, particularly in relation to his erstwhile hometown of Omsk.

        Rest assured: no Heimweh for Omsk; as to Heimat, he feels quite at home in Berlin, in Munich, and at his parents’ home in Austria. But his real home is not a place: it is music.

        Coming from most other conductors, such a boast would sound pathetic.
        Listening to Petrenko, I feel inclined to take him at his word.

        • Music is certainly his life…

          Sorry I didn’t get the reference; I hadn’t clicked on the interview link.

  • Never underestimate a shy person. Some of the shyest people in life, even musicians and singers, are very often the most successful and have a lot to say, so be kind as he might very well surprise us all!

  • ”Petrenko gives few interviews and betrays nothing of his inner self.” He would not be dissimilar to von Karajan then?

  • “His shyness is a problem ”
    Karajan was shy according to the various accounts of him …clearly wasn’t a problem.

  • What is wrong with a conductor who lets the music speak, who works for the music instead of his public image?
    The Berlin Phil has other was to create publicity.
    Great choice, I have never been disappointed when listening to a radio broadcast of concerts in which he was swinging the baton.

  • I heard Kirill Petrenko conducting the Israel Philharmonic in Jerusalem.

    He is not tall like Otto Klemperer and not handsome like Istvan Kertesz

    But I did not hear the orchestra play so well for years!

    I trust the Berlin Philharmonic musicians know why they choose him.

    Bravo BPO! Bravo Petrenko!

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