Kirill Petrenko Heads to Berlin ; Russian-Born Conductor Chosen by Philharmonic Keeps a Low Profile

By Cooper, Michael | International New York Times, June 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

Kirill Petrenko Heads to Berlin ; Russian-Born Conductor Chosen by Philharmonic Keeps a Low Profile


Cooper, Michael, International New York Times


The orchestra has given its approval to a leader with high standards who keeps a low profile.

When the Berlin Philharmonic announced that its next chief conductor would be Kirill Petrenko, the Russian-born music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, the organization was awarding one of the most prestigious posts in classical music to a widely respected artist who has largely shunned the spotlight courted by some of his peers.

Case in point: Mr. Petrenko, 43, is in the midst of rehearsals at the Bayreuth Festival and so did not attend the hastily arranged news conference in Berlin, where his appointment was announced on Monday, a day after the musicians of the Philharmonic, a self- governing orchestra, met in secret near their concert hall. They elected him the latest in a line of distinguished leaders that has included Hans von Bulow, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle, the current conductor.

It was not the musicians' first attempt to choose a successor to Mr. Rattle, who will leave the post in 2018: At a marathon 11-hour meeting in May, the musicians cast several ballots but failed to agree on a candidate, raising questions about the role of modern conductors, and what course the Berlin Philharmonic intends to chart in the 21st century.

In choosing Mr. Petrenko, who is best known as an opera conductor, the Philharmonic's players bypassed a number of more famous maestros and opted for a quiet, diligent musician who has won the admiration of orchestras, critics and audiences. In some ways he is the opposite of the jet-setters who have increasingly become the norm in the field, arranging his schedule to devote more of his time to fewer ensembles.

"The orchestra and the score itself are always the focus -- not his own person," Peter Riegelbauer, one of the musicians on the orchestra's board, said at the news conference. But he added, "He is always able to transform a concert hall with his unique charisma."

There are risks to the appointment. Few couples would marry after only three dates, no matter how great, and Mr. Petrenko has conducted the Philharmonic only three times. In December he withdrew on short notice because of shoulder pain from a fourth engagement to conduct Mahler's Sixth Symphony.

That Mahler was to have been his first foray into the standard symphonic literature with the orchestra, a reminder that Mr. Petrenko's orchestral repertoire is not as wide as that of some other candidates. And his seeming reticence -- he declined to be interviewed on Monday -- could pose a challenge for an international orchestra that valued Mr. Rattle's ability to talk about its art with audiences and the news media alike.

But Mr. Petrenko has won fans wherever he has conducted, and has become known for his exacting standards. His work at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich has been praised, and officials there said on Monday that they still hoped to extend his contract beyond 2018. (The Berlin orchestra declined to give Mr. Petrenko's official start date, suggesting that details of the new engagement had yet to be negotiated. …

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