Slipped Disc editorial: Why Petrenko?

When the leaders of the Berlin Philharmonic staggered, weary and confused, from a May election that split the orchestra between supporters of Christian Thielemann and Andris Nelsons, they knew that there was not time to waste in choosing an compromise candidate. Either of the first choices would have damaged the orchestra beyond repair as the players continued their feud.

Petrenko had conducted the orchestra three times since 2006 and showed no ambition for having a closer relationship. A modest man, focussed closely on music and musicians, he took over only two years ago as music director of Bavarian State Opera. In previous contacts with Berlin he had declared himself unavailable.

But he had a good time in Berlin as music director of the Komische Oper and got to know several of the Berlin Phil players. In the face of their powerful need for a unifying candidate, his resistance crumbled.

He is, beyond question, a brilliant and intense conductor, a leader who fights for his musicians and spares no effort in achieving the best musical results.

His drawbacks? He is unknown outside Germany and attractively shy.

The Berlin Phil is a figurehead role. He will need to change, fast.

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  • Avi Kujman says:

    Thank you Norman for this input.

  • herrera says:

    A compromise choice is a compromised choice.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Not necessarily. In this case, the orchestra seems to have drastically changed its parameters, seeing that the star element was getting destructive. The internal oppositions seem to have cleared the way for a return to essentials, which makes this choice not a compromise but a liberation.

    • PDQ.BACH says:

      Petrenko ist not a compromise, he represents a very intelligent consensus.

      Thielemann would have been a deeply compromised choice. His intolerable arrogance in the Bayreuth affair (effectively banning Eva Wagner-Pasquier from her own opera house) has disgusted and dismayed a great many people, including within the Philharmoniker.

      When Thielemann got to Dresden, his advent was announced by ubiquitous placards with his portrait and the messianic participle: “Angekommen!” (“Arrived!”). Now I’ve live to see Daniel Barenboim and the Berliner Staatskapelle last year, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Philadelphia this year fêted in Dresden partly because they were not Thielemann. In many ways they were perceived as his antithesis. I cannot recall many conductors generating such bitterness and resentment. Clearly the Berliner were wise in having second thoughts, and they made a wise choice.

  • Ljubisa says:

    I was a few times to hear the concerts of Berlin Phil. last years. Every time, but REALLY every time I noticed Petrenko in the audience!!!
    The man who likes to follow music, modest and ready to go on…
    Very interesting decision. I suppose it will helps all great stars to stay in orchestra!!!!

  • harold braun says:

    Great choice!For once artistic responsibility and conscience has won over marketing strategies and hype!Bravo!

    • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

      In 10 years we will see if it has ‘won’. Its hypocritical to antagonize marketing and business, as these are basic tenets upon which the Philarmoniker became what it is today. Karajan was not particularly ‘anti-business/anti-marketing’.

  • Peter says:

    re “unknown outside Germany and attractively shy”.

    Somehow I have a feeling, that we are seeing a genius move here.
    Two points:

    1.) The value of the classical music, represented by one of the best orchestras in the world, is heightened by shortening the supply side. By making it a rare, outstanding occasion, not a mass distributed cheap good. The personality of K. Petrenko supports this future paradigm.

    2.) he puts the music in the center, not his personality. He could thus become the “messias” (sorry for the hyperbole) of the classical music, that is ridden by cancerous disease of personal cult, so the agents and all the other parasites (a bit drastic of a word but isn’t it true too often?) in the business can make their share. Let’s hope the system does not corrupt or destroy him. If his approach succeeds, the Berlin Phil will have done a historic election back to a paradigm of making music that was intrinsic to Furtwängler’s time and was replaced under Karajan with a cult around the chief conductor.

    Great move Berlin Phil, thank you!!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Spot on. Hopefully other orchestras will follow Berlin’s example with putting music making first and disposing of the personality cult.

    • Stephen says:

      Karajan too was shy socially. (Helmut Schmidt once described him as “buttoned up”).

    • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

      On point #1 – 100% with you, and Berlin, Concertgebouw, and a handful of other ensembles (LSO, LAPhil) will effectively be the only ones making ‘classical music’ as we know it in 30 years. All the other ones will be doing some version of 2-cellos vivaldi meets lady gaga skits for their ‘el sistema’ outreach programs. mark my words.

      Having said that, its hypocritical to – in the same post – highlight a marketing strategy (differentiation, scarcity) and the very next sentence bash the business side of things. Accept it, we live in capitalism and we need to abide to supply/demand as you noted. That includes the liaison business because youtube/facebook/social media alone is not yet a good filter for talent. It if were, the labels and management agencies would’ve disappeared like flip phones and film cameras have disappeared due to technology.

      While full of hope, your assesment also plays under the big assumption that the lack of a marketable/well known figurehead does not have negative externalities in the ensemble per se, which is very unlikely.

      In the next 24 hours Petrenko will get major management, probably a Label contract, and will have 2 years to build up momentum before he takes the post.

      A similar thing happened with NY Phil when they elected underdog Gilbert….and I am not sure if this move was good/bad for the orchestra.

      The most recurring comment of this topic: TIME WILL TELL.

  • Guus Mostart says:

    Why the Concertgebouworkest appointed Gatti instead of Petrenko is a mysterie to me. They had their chance and missed it!

  • John Lancaster says:

    Thank you Norman for all the coverage. It’s the right choice and a great day for me and the Berlin Philharmonic that is so much a part of my life.

  • Peter says:

    “He will need to change, fast.”

    You must be joking. Entering a marriage with the prerequisite that the partner has to change fast is a sure recipe for disaster. You might underestimate the strength of the faction in BPhO that longs for deep musical fulfillment over shine and mass media appeal.

    Of course you journalists can not be happy with a man, who by principle doesn’t give interviews.

    • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

      So, we are saying here that not giving interviews and being astray from the media is a good thing for the flagship ensemble of an entire artform??

      If Karajan had not been Karajan, the Berliner Phil would not be what it is today.

      • Peter says:

        true, but Karajan, could not have built upon nothing, but on what Furtwängler (and Nikisch and von Bühlow) built up. Listen to Furtwängler’s Beethoven 9 recording during the war, and you know what I mean.
        Celi was a bit right. Karajan was a great conductor, but for the masses he built himself a bit up as “Coca Cola”. That was in a time when Coca Cola was not readily available everywhere.

        Today there is Coca Cola and many other brands in suffocating oversupply.

        Time to cultivate “Chateau Furtwängler” again, fill a scarce valuable amount on the bottle at the chateau, and not dilute it with water or throw sugar in it anymore…

  • Luciano says:

    Petrenko is great, but still, it seems a strange decision to me. In his last two visits there he didn’t really do any mainstream repertoire, and that was three years ago now. It’s a leap of faith.

  • Elliot Kahn says:

    Why indeed! If it had to end in compromise and I agree it had to with the two top choices being polar opposites not only from a musical point of view, then why was Sebastian Weigle not chosen?

  • Olassus says:

    BR Klassik is reporting that the Bavarian State Opera is in the throes of a contract extension for Petrenko. Intendant Bachler brings this up in his message of congratulation.

  • Sir Peter Jonas says:

    This is a wonderful and visionary appointment for the Berlin Philharmonic and Berlin itself as the artistic centre of Europe. Kirill Petrenko is one of the great conductors of our time and only in Britain has he been somewhat undervalued and or ignored. His work at the Komische Oper was superb and his performances, as well as his uncompromising leadership qualities and integrity at the Bavarian State Opera, have been thrilling, inspiring and edifying in that they have given many of us faith and belief in the musical future of such institutions. He is not shy but, rather, in his single-minded pursuit of his musical dream, completely concentrated on the musical task at hand. One prays that he will see out the whole of his contract in Munich as the Staatsorchester at the Opera have flourished working with him (let us not forget this was Carlos Kleiber’s favourite Orchestra and had a such a close, affectionate and rewarding relationship with Zubin Mehta during his era as MD) and maybe this is the riposte to the infamous reply of the BBC Proms management as the Staatsorchester’s committee and their management offered themselves to the Proms for 2016 on tour and were sent away with the exclamation….”Oh no…. Kirill Petrenko?…We do not really know about him over here….”!!! Little Britain!!

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I wonder who that was….?

    • tristan says:

      Peter Jonas is so right! Petrenko is the best choice – wonderful combination!
      Maybe not known so much in London but for the best of the best one always had to travel: for Kleiber one went to Munich and for Abbado one went to Lucerne. Those were the most fascinating in the last twenty years.
      Thielemann should be happy with Katharina Wagner in Bayreuth as no one else will…
      Great singers pull out and generally Bayreuth has been badly managed – Petrenko will leave also.
      The Bavarian State Opera had showed a few performances with Petrenko (FROSCH, RING…) that somehow reminded us of the great days when Carlos Kleiber impressed us with excitement like no one else did.

      I can only congratulate the Berliner for this amazing choice!

    • Guus Mostart says:

      It’s called “Splendid Isolation”, Peter – you could say the same about Amsterdam!!

    • william osborne says:

      “…Berlin itself as the artistic centre of Europe.” Maybe that’s true, but it would be a little more comforting if it had not been so eagerly sought…

      • urania says:

        I would say it is still Vienna – artistic (classical music) center of Europe and maybe Munich ahead of Berlin, but who cares? I did have the most joyful musical expierences this year out of these circles.

        • John Borstlap says:

          As long as Vienna exists, it will be the musical centre of Europe because of its mythological past and the artistic obligations which follow from it. And of course its position is shared by other musical centres, like slightly less beautiful sisters.

        • Holly Golightly says:

          I agree; Vienna is the centre of the musical firmament. I’ve spent quite a long time there myself. But the BPO has made its decision and it will be happy with that. I’ll support the orchestra no matter who they’ve chosen. They’re a great band!!

    • Alexander Hall says:

      London critics and orchestral managers are sometimes surprisingly parochial. When I tried to interest one of London’s orchestral managers in securing the services of Petrenko as a guest conductor, I was rewarded with a blank look and “Well, we have to wait until the moment is right.” That says it all.

  • Gregor Tassie says:

    This is a sign of the decline of a great orchestra – a most underwhelming decision – or perhaps the orchestra are looking for a good time and want someone who will not over task them….

  • herrera says:

    And the winner is…Thielemann.

    He remains the biggest name in Germany, perhaps even stronger after the election than before. Petrenko loses Bavaria and Bayreuth for Berlin, gains nothing more than what Rattle had.

    • urania says:

      Herrera, wishful thinking….lots of waves here….hope the wakeup will not be too chilly!

    • Simon S. says:

      Nope. Thielemann will remain the chief conductor of the (pretty fair) orchestra of a second class opera house – and the informal music director of a declining festival.

      His rare appearances on important stages will be hailed as usual, but his real influence on music life in Germany and beyond will continue to be rather limited.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        I can tell you from regular recent experience that Maestro Thielemann is very greatly loved in Vienna (and that ain’t no second rate centre). I saw him 5 weeks ago and he was called back to the platform 6 more times, long after the orchestra departed. WE all understood the significance of that endorsement!!!

        • Simon S. says:

          This dosn’t contradict what I am saying. Thielemann: within his limited repertoire one of the greatest conductors of our time, certainly. But he has so far failed twice (Deutsche Oper Berlin and MPhil) as music director. He is the right one for an excellent performance that you’ll never forget. But he’s obviously not the right one for shaping an era at the head of a leading orch or opera house (which is what is traditionally expected from the BPhil chief).

          Dresden: Yes, the orchestra is great. But an excellent orch alone doesn’t make a great opera company. And right now, Dresden very probably is not within Germany’s top 10 opera companies. (And their attempt to change this ended in sacking Dorny before he had taken up the job.)

          Bayreuth: Anyone here to dispute the claim that this festival is in terrible decline?

          • Alexander Hall says:

            Not only that, but for a relationship to work satisfactorily you need a conductor with a collegiate approach who is not likely to throw a temper tantrum when all his demands are not met (nor engineer the dismissal of your general manager, as happened to Serge Dorny). The problem with Thielemann is not a musical one: by flouncing out of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Munich Philharmonic, to take just two examples from his cv, he was always going to be something of a loose cannon had the Berlin Philharmonic decided to place their trust in him.

        • Tim Walton says:

          I can well believe that Thielemann is greatly liked in Austria

          They have a reputation for liking dictators.

  • David Boxwell says:

    The Other Petrenko is better known in the UK. This Petrenko is better known in Germany.

  • pooroperaman says:

    Wrong Petrenko. This will turn the BPO back into a provincial backwater. They’re going in the opposite direction to the Liverpool Phil.

  • Halldor says:

    So, who knows where he stands on Putin’s less liberal policies..? Anything on the record?

    • Simon S. says:

      He usually doesn’t comment on politics in public. But when asked on his view of the Crimea crisis in March 2014, he responded that the Russion intervention was “anything but normal” and that he hoped for a political solution that “doesn’t touch Ukraine’s sovereignty”.

      Doesn’t sound like an ardent Putin supporter, does it?

  • Dirk Herman says:

    The time of great conductors is history,with the current generation of conductors I feel no emotions at all,its all media hype to promote the conductor,and we all know that classical music is almost dead,Mr.Pretenko can do nothing about this.

    • Stephen says:

      That’s an exaggeration, surely? We have Riccardo Muti and Valery Gergiev for a start and, in my view, worthy successors to the previous generation.

      • Dirk Herman says:

        Yes maybe,I visit concerts with Giulini in Brahms,Bernstein in Mahler,Jochum en Celibidache in Brucker, Stokowski and Kleiber Jr in Beethoven.
        Never Toscanini or Walter,only on recordings,but do you know what I mean?
        That kind of conductors do not longer exist,for me only Haitink can match.
        Thanks for the reply

  • Andrew Condon says:

    I don’t know when his next Berlin date is but from checking the forthcoming broadcasts on the DCH for 2015 – 2016 he is certainly conspicuous by his absence. I know these things are worked out years in advance but it does seem odd that after this initial hullabaloo his profile will not get much of a boost for quite some time.

  • Karl Luttinger says:

    I have followed K Petrenko’s carreer from his days at the Komische Oper Berlin. He turned around that orchestra to the most exciting group Berlin had seen in a long time.

    His carreer took off, and he was indeed on everybodys shortlist until last December, when he called off an appearance with the BPh, very much as a leading contender for the job, on very short notice and without communication. The orchestra and managment were miffed, and his action seemed to disqualify him for the job. Then Thielemann’s personality came again into question after an affair in Bayreuth , where Petrenco came out on the opposite side. That made Petrenko’s reclusiveness look look a ‘quantité négligeable’ , and they went for him.

    He is an astonishing musician with no ego, well liked by all who work with him, and will take the BPh to places it has never been. The orchestra is to be congratulated.

  • Jonathan Z says:

    I don’t know Petrenko’s work but it does seem that he hasn’t got a relationship with a record company. Doesn’t this matter any more?

    • David Boxwell says:

      This Petrenko’s recorded legacy is amazingly small for such a Big League hire: a couple of studio recordings of Suk for CPO, and the Palestrina. The Other Petrenko’s, by contrast, is big.

      • Andrew says:

        Might I suggest that a lack of recordings could have many possible ’causes’:
        1) K. Petrenko not being interested in recordings
        2) K. Petrenko being ‘afraid’ – (ala Carlos Kleiber) in a musical-perfectionist sense – of recordings. Extreme respect for the works (to be ‘immortalized’ by a recording)
        3) K. Petrenko being terribly interested in the music and not being terribly interested in the ‘business’…which in many ways suits the Berlin Phil, since their business operations are so securely established with mostly sold-out concerts, Festival contracts, the Digital Concert Hall, and the Berlin Phil brand.

  • Luk says:

    The May elections are the classic example how journalists make stories up. They built up the suspence, created a lean narrative (Thielemann or Nelsons? arch-right winger or leap to the future?), then cried to disaster when the meeting THEY decided it was the crucial and extra-important didn’t give a name. When there was no real compelling reason the Berliner had to decide just that day and that day only.

    Thus I’m glad the orchestra surprised everyone by choosing -by their own terms and with their own pace- a name that surely has more musical than mediatic value.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Live in your fantasy world if you like, but don’t trouble us again with your fatuous comments.

      • Celloman says:

        No quite the gentleman here, Mr. Lebrecht.

        Nelsons was never in the run.
        All your so-called sources or assumptions are wrong.

        You repeat and repeat rumors via various media channels without the slightest prove, I always get reminded of Valzacchi, I wonder why…

        Great entertainer though!

        Cheers! Cman

  • Holly Golightly says:

    Congratulations to Maestro Petrenko!! May he succeed and enjoy his time with the BPO.

  • Vince says:

    I just can’t imagine Maestro Petrenko getting Facebook and Twitter accounts because of this.

  • Mick says:

    He has clearly been hugely successful in opera so far, but will he be just as good in the symphonic repertoire? I do hope they made the right choice, but only time will tell (unless they know themselves that it was but a compromise).

    • Peter says:

      There is not a single great conductor, who hasn’t done a lot of opera in his gestation years to mastership. Not a single one… Opera is the place where the chaff is separated from the wheat as far as conducting is concerned. On concert stage you stand a chance to fake it, not in the pit, no way…

  • Tim Walton says:

    Norman

    You comment above that ‘Either of the first choices would have damaged the orchestra beyond repair’ is astonishing.

    How can that possibly refer to Andris Nelsons

    It is one of the most crass comments I have ever heard.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      There were militants among both sets of supporters who would have torn the orchestra apart.

      • Tim Walton says:

        That is a slightly better way of wording your original comment which seemed to imply, probably wrongly, that you were saying that Nelsons would cause the problem himself rather than the narrow minded players.

  • toto says:

    Andris Nelsons was on the BPh shortlist, but was never a serious candidate. Neither was Dudamel. It was all about Thieleman, Petrenko and Barenboim.
    Personally, I think Petrenko is a VERY long shot, but if it works out, might be fantastic. Concertgebouw are green with envy….

  • Barrick Stees says:

    Petrenko conducted us in the mid-2000’s (Cleveland Orchestra). He is one of the two or three best conductors we’ve had since I’ve been in the Orchestra. I’m not surprised by the vote.

    • Jonathan Z says:

      The question that doesn’t seem to have been answered is: if the BPO players are so in love with Petrenko, why has he only appeared with them three times over a period of nine years? Is this because the players have the final say over their Music Director, but no say over guest conductors which is down to management?

      • Karl Luttinger says:

        Yes ! Managment operates on different premises from musicians. It is good to see that musicans were given a chance to and have succeeded in a democratic process.

  • DESR says:

    Christian will remain the king across the water.

    He will work his wonders still in Bayreuth and in Dresden, and in Vienna, and people will wonder what might have been.

    A genius, but certainly flawed. Leaders are not always also managers!

  • Christopher says:

    The best decision the Berlin Philharmonic has made since Furtwängler.

    He is the closest thing we have to a certain particular type of conductor we haven’t seen for quite some time — one that is completely attuned to music, usually quite sensitive, keen, intelligent, and above all, emotionally explosive in their music-making. Conductors like Kleiber, Tennstedt, Giulini, Gavazzeni, and of course Furtwängler.

    Certainly can’t wait to see the Digital Concerts in the future when he is the conductor.

    • Michael says:

      You do realize the orchestra never ‘chose’ Furtwängler, right? This purported ‘tradition’ of the Berlin Philharmonic electing its music directors only dates to 1989. Prior to that, all chief conductors were appointments by impresarios and/or cultural bureaucrats. This was only the musicians’ third time to the ballot box in the orchestra’s history – and the wisdom of their decisions aside, clearly (and understandably) they are still coming to terms with the process…

      • Peter says:

        Karajan was elected by the orchestra. His appointment then suggested to the authorities. He was “the chosen one”. (to the dismay of Celibidache who since held a deep grudge against the orchestra and Karajan)

  • Orchestraplayer says:

    I’d like to tell Alexander Hall that I know for sure that at least one London Orchestra booked Kirill Petrenko a few years ago. Ironically he cancelled in order to make his BPO debut. He was booked again later but cancelled for health reason. So go easier on so called short-sighted London Orchestra Manager(s).

  • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

    Meanwhile, in the offices of every major managment firm, and both major labels…offers are being typed, emails sent and the machinery gets rolling.

    I ponder in the next 24 hours movements will be made, and within the week Mtro Petrenko will have multiple offers from the usual suspects.

  • melisande says:

    My first ‘encounter’ with Maestro Kirill Petrenko was a fortnight ago. Medici tv broadcasted live from Munich the performance of Berg’s opera Lulu. As I was rather disappointed by the performance in Amsterdam (Holland Festival), I wanted to find out if the cast (a.o. Marlis Petersen and Bo Skovkus), the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and conductor Petrenko would bring this monumental piece of music into a gripping experience. And yes, with this amazing conductor they succeeded overwhelmingly. It reminded me of the same experience I had with the late Carlos Kleiber. Those miracles are to be treasured and make you eager to hear more. Congratulations to the Berliner Philharmoniker.

  • Jonathan Turner says:

    He doesn’ need to change. He just needs to give excellent concerts, that’s all. If you give excellent concerts that are better than anyone else’ then you are a figurehead.

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