Berlin in Petrenko fever: His inaugural concert with the Berlin Philharmonic

“Four years ago, Kirill Petrenko was elected principal conductor of the orchestra, one steeped in tradition. At his first official concert in that function, the Russian-born maestro gave a sample of what is in store.

Kirill Petrenko with orchestra members seen in background (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)

What’s the secret of a conductor’s success? His aura? Charisma? Stage presence? Authority? Technical ability? Hard work?

Those questions came to mind while experiencing Kirill Petrenko’s first appearance as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. And were answered.

Read more: Back to the basics with Petrenko

The iconic Berlin Philharmonie shook to the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and one could feel the tremors in far-off Bonn, where this author watched the transmission in a movie theater. Getting a ticket for the concert in Berlin was impossible, but that was a blessing in disguise: In the theater, one could watch the musical process up close.

Rare appearances

Back to the beginning: In 2015, the Berlin Philharmonic — one musician, one vote — elected the now 47-year-old Austrian, born in Siberia, to be the seventh principal conductor in the orchestra’s 137-year history. Only seven principals in 137 years points to a long history for each individual one.

Orchestra members, choristers and conductor onstage in the Berlin Philharmonie (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)All dressed in black, except for the mezzo-soprano — she wore red

Pre-election, the Berliners had experienced Petrenko only a few times, and post-election there were only four joint performances. In the season to come, Petrenko graces the playbills only six times — in contrast to his omnipresent predecessor, Simon Rattle. The reason? Until the end of 2020, Petrenko remains under contract with the Bavarian State Opera and will commute from Munich to Berlin and back.

So his inaugural performance was all the more hotly anticipated. It began with Symphonic Pieces from the opera “Lulu” by Alban Berg. A riddle of a work from the year 1934: highly modern, atonal.

With 100 energetic musicians onstage, one had the impression that the conductor was working harder than the rest together. Veins pulsed in his forehead, and long before the main work of the evening, he was working up a sweat.

Making music with modest means

Petrenko’s philosophy? “We have to see what we can achieve with our modest means,” said the maestro in a pre-concert interview. Modest means? The Berlin Philharmonic is considered one of the world’s most-renowned orchestras. Some even say: the most-renowned.

Was the conductor playing down the group or its members’ abilities? Hardly. “There are not just 130 musicians sitting there,” says cello chair Olaf Maninger. “The orchestra’s whole history is sitting there. And he brings along the respect for that into his official function.”

The remark about “modest means” can have been made by Petrenko only in relation to something much greater: a work of music, something that can be only approached and never fully revealed.

Conductor applauds musicians and directs them to stand up (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)A conductor who wants to insure that every one of his musicians gets fair credit

Beethoven’s Ninth sounding new

All the more so with a often-heard piece like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which had also been important to his predecessors Hans von Bülow, Artur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle. When conducting it, every nerve, ever fiber in in Kirill Petrenko’s body seems infused with music. He drives the musicians with expansive, energetic gestures, yet seems to conduct most of all with his eyes. In close-ups, those expressions are intriguing, ranging from desperation to jubilation, from wild to crazy — and culminating again and again in an ecstatic grin.

Read more: all about Deutsche Grammophon

Sometimes Petrenko seems to beseech, to implore his musicians with his body language. He often even seems to stand at the edge of a precipice, as though only his last reserves of energy and those of his fellow musicians could prevent the fall.

The exertion is echoed in the faces of the instrumentalists. They, too, play as though their lives depend on it.

Conductor, soloist and orchestra taking ovations (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)Moved and exhausted: Petrenko and baritone Kwangchul Youn

Passion and humility

Orchestra members confirm that wild, uncompromising demeanor. “He went absolutely berserk,” says horn player Sarah Willis, describing Petrenko’s passion. “He struck like a meteor,” agrees violist Matthew Hunter. “It was an explosive experience.”

Yet in conversation, the conductor seems quiet and modest, anything but a commanding presence. In an interview with cellist Olaf Maninger, he mostly avoids eye contact and speaks in a quiet tenor and with a thick Russian accent, as though embarrassed to be speaking at all. One understands why Petrenko rarely gives interviews. But the message is clear: “A concert like this comes only once in a lifetime. Yet the pressure is incredible. I couldn’t wait for the day to pass. I wanted it to be evening right away.”

And about the point of departure for the new relationship: “I had the feeling that the musicians are ready to honestly follow my intention. And so I want to give them some kind of confirmation, to say: ‘Yes, I’m the one!'”

No megalomaniac at the podium

The American Matthew Hunter, a member of the Berlin Philharmonic since 1996, explains what Petrenko’s modesty means in terms of music-making: “You don’t have to have a big ego onstage. In fact, it probably gets in the way of achieving musical aims. So you can be modest and still have the maximum musical authority.”

And the results? Beethoven’s Ninth was rendered with momentum, passion — and meaning. A work that has to withstand performances at every kind of official celebration sounded fresh, as though heard for the first or only time. Timpani player Rainer Seegers describes the experience, saying: “You take the maximum risk. But then you have the chance that something comes about that can never be repeated.”

Gazing into the crystal ball

What’s to be expected in the Petrenko era of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra? Matthew Hunter gives a hint: “I can’t predict how Kirill Petrenko will develop our sound in the next five or 10 years. But I would say we’re returning to something in our sound. The sound is in us, and it will be in the air.”

Rainer Seegers adds, “Something is returning, something that was there ages ago with Karajan. Restoring the unmistakable sound of the Berlin Philharmonic: I think that’s his secret goal or wish.”

Kirill Petrenko smiling broadly, partially covering his face with his hand (picture-alliance/AP/S. Hoppe)Just what does he have in mind?

For the moment, it’s more of a honeymoon feeling between maestro and orchestra. The program is to be repeated outdoors on August 24 in front of the Brandenburg Gate for an audience of up to 32,000, with transmission onto an LED screen, to television and to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. The program begins at 8:00 p.m. CET.

But what was the last thing heard the night before? Ovations, curtain calls, flowers, bows, hugs: the usual ritual — but the ovations wouldn’t subside. One felt the applause could have gone on for half an hour, had the chorus and orchestra not stood up and walked out. Then the auditorium thinned out, too, but the clapping and cheering continued until Kirill Petrenko appeared again on the now empty stage and bowed to the remaining audience members as though to say, “Yes, I’m the one!”

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Berlin Philharmonic Plays At Brandenburg Gate With New Russian-Born Conductor’

Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko (file photo)

Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko (file photo)

“The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and its new principal conductor, 47-year-old Russian-born Kirill Petrenko, have performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 for crowds in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

The concert at the historic site in Berlin was part of celebrations marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

An estimated 35,000 people turned up for the performance under the open sky.

The crowd celebrated Petrenko and the orchestra with a long applause after the final chorus with Friedrich Schiller’s Ode To Joy.

The concert marked the first time the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has performed in front of the historic Brandenburg Gate.

Petrenko had already begun his time at the helm of the philharmonic on August 23 by conducting Beethoven’s Ninth. He is only the orchestra’s seventh chief conductor in its 137-year history.

Petrenko, who is of Jewish descent was born in Omsk, Russia, in 1972 to a musicologist mother and a violinist father who was born in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

In 1990, when Petrenko was 18, he and his family emigrated to Austria where his father played in the Symphony Orchestra Vorarlberg.

In 2014, when Russian military forces seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the Kremlin illegally annexed the region, Petrenko called for a solution to the crisis that would respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Based on reporting by dpa and RBB-TV


Kirill Petrenko startet bei den Berliner Philharmonikern

“Er ist heiß begehrt: Kirill Petrenko, der in Russland geborene Dirigent, übernimmt Simon Rattles Nachfolge bei den Berliner Philharmonikern. Mit Beethovens “Neunter” legt er los.

Dirigent Kirill Petrenko (Foto: Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP,file)

Vor 13 Jahren, im Frühling 2006, spazierte ich mit Kirill Petrenko durch Berlin, nach einem “Don Giovanni” an der Komischen Oper. Wir waren beide gleich alt und beide in Russland geboren. Es war spät, aber mein Gesprächspartner hatte ausreichend Zeit für ein Interview, obwohl er kurz zuvor einen fulminanten Mozartabend dirigiert hatte. Wir sprachen Russisch. “Musik ist nicht zum Spaß da”, sagte er unter anderem, “sondern dazu, dass wir ständig an uns arbeiten, auch das Tragische am Leben erkennen und dadurch womöglich bessere Menschen werden.” Die Musik sei schlussendlich die höchste Form der Menschlichkeit, so Petrenko. . . . ”


“Dass ein Musiker mit russisch-ukrainisch-jüdischen Wurzeln zum Nachfolger nicht nur von Simon Rattle, sondern auch von Wilhelm Furtwängler und Herbert von Karajan wird, ist ebenso symbolisch wie historisch gerecht.”

Autor Rick Fulker

Beethovens Neunte ganz neu

. . . . . .

Ein Blick in die Zukunft

Was kann man in der Petrenko-Ära der Berliner Philharmoniker erwarten? Matthew Hunter deutet es an: “Ich kann nicht voraussagen, wie Petrenko unseren Klang in den kommenden fünf bis zehn Jahren entwickeln wird. Aber ich würde sagen, wir kehren zu etwas zurück.”

“Rainer Seegers wird da deutlicher: “Da kommt wieder so was, was vor urlanger Zeit mit Karajan auch war. Der Klang der Berliner Philharmoniker, den es mal gab, wiederherzustellen: Ich glaube, das ist sein geheimes Ziel.”

Petrenko und sein Orchester auf der Bühne (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)Zum Schluss lässt Petrenko die Orchestergruppen aufstehen

Zum jetzigen Augenblick steht aber erstmal die frisch gebackene Partnerschaft im Vordergrund, die von einer Art Flitterwochen-Gefühl überlagert wird. Am 24. August wird das Programm wiederholt – am Brandenburger Tor vor einem Publikum von bis zu 32.000 Menschen samt Übertragung auf eine LED-Wand, ins Fernsehen und zur Digital Concert Hall der Berliner Philharmoniker. Um 20 Uhr mitteleuropäischer Zeit geht es los.

Und wie ging die Aufführung am 23. August zu Ende? Mit nicht enden wollenden Ovationen, etlichen Vorhängen und den üblichen Ritualen: Einzelne Instrumentengruppen nahmen den Applaus entgegen, Chor, Vokalsolisten – und immer wieder erschien der Maestro, der glücklich und erlöst wirkte. Das hätte vermutlich eine gute halbe Stunde so weiter gehen können. Irgendwann standen jedoch Orchester- und Chormitglieder auf und gingen. Dann lichteten sich auch im Auditorium die Reihen etwas. Es ging aber mit dem Applaus immer noch weiter. Endlich kam dann Kirill Petrenko alleine heraus, ein letztes Mal, und verbeugte sich vor dem Rest-Publikum. So als wollte der bescheidene Maestro nochmal sagen: “Ja, ich bin es!”