Each time the Berlin Philharmonic has elected its new head in modern history, it's signaled stark change and sent a signal to the rest of the music world. Rick Fulker has an idea of what to expect in the Petrenko era.
He's only conducted the Berlin Philharmonic three times, and recently canceled with them on short notice and under questionable circumstances. He hates CD recordings, and even more, interviews. Some, in fact, call him "The Great Quiet One."
"Who is Kirill Petrenko?" is the question being asked in the Anglo-American music world. An initial answer: the seventh principal conductor in the orchestra's history is a 43-year-old Russian-born, Austrian-trained Jewish musician who seems to prefer the opera pit to the symphonic stage. On photos, the short, thin maestro sports a bearded, tight-lipped, but broad smile and friendly eyes with more than a slight sparkle.
After the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, known for his eruptive, spontaneous, sometimes nebulous, and mystic sound, came Herbert von Karajan, with brass-tacks precision, a penchant for definitive, perfectionist interpretations, and his exhaustive documentation of them on recordings.
Coming on the heels of the authoritarian Karajan was Claudio Abbado, the congenial conductor who treated "his" musicians as equals and sought consensus. The soft-spoken Abbado was succeeded, in turn, by Sir Simon Rattle: flamboyant, media-savvy, concerned with classical music's social relevance, and eager to position the Berliners in the 21st century to renew the orchestra and open it up to new repertory.
Tame or unleashed?
"The job of being the music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker is sometimes like being the most privileged animal tamer in the world," revealed Rattle to DW in 2004. "You go up to the door of the cage of these wild tigers, and you let them out, and you see what happens when they run rampant."
Contrast that with Karajan, who once said to the group, "You are my extended arm." Who can really understand what makes the Berlin Philharmonic tick?
Its members sworn to secrecy, little more than rumors have seeped out of the ranks after the May 11 fiasco, the day they were supposed to elect a new head. The list of candidates was a one-to-one match with the world's greatest conductors. Did they choose someone who then turned down the offer?
We know only that back in May, no "sizable majority" could be found for a single candidate. The wild tigers were apparently out of control. Was there too much hype over the decision? As Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Seguin recently told DW, "I think it's great that the Berlin Philharmonic remains the flagship of our music world. So yes, they must have felt a great responsibility. But did they feel too much pressure? I see it this way: They're not in a hurry, and if they couldn't agree, it's okay to wait."
The wait is over
Conductors' schedules being set three or more years in advance, they made the decision none too soon - and this time left the media out of the picture until the decision had been made.
The choice of Petrenko signals an about-face in the orchestra's vision of its future.
Because the media-shy maestro says so little about himself, one has to rely on secondary sources. One of them, Burkhard Ulrich, told DW what it was like to rehearse under Petrenko's direction at the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Should the singer make a mistake, said Ulrich, "Petrenko regularly adds insult to injury. He'll say, 'Watch out, it's a sixteenth of an upbeat, not an eighth.' And I respond by saying: 'Thank you very much, Kirill. I hope to keep that in mind.' And he says, 'Don't worry. Even if you don't, I will. And I'll remind you again and again.' And that's exactly what happens."
It's about the sound
By all accounts, this conductor - his back problem notwithstanding - could be the most exhaustively painstaking one in the field. Does he sacrifice musicality for perfection? That would be a cliché. The result of his labor at the Bayreuth Festival was the most remarkable performance of the four-opera "Ring" cycle I have heard in the many years I've attended. And that following the remarkable Christian Thielemann. All of Thielemann's precision, balance and intelligence, plus an added depth and breadth to the music.
Petrenko conjures an eloquent, rhetorically effective, orchestral sound that carries, and never interferes with, the meaning in the vocalized text. And unheard-of dynamic extremes. After his Bayreuth debut in 2013, the German newspaper "Die Welt"labeled Petrenko a Teufelskerlchen- a devilish guy, a man of veritably satanic powers. Look at the photo again, and you will see something of a devilish glint in that shy maestro's eye.
Are the Berliners taking a risk? Some say yes. In the run-up to the failed election day of May 11, Ulrich Eckhard, the orchestra's general director for 27 years, pointed out that it was a dual job that had to be filled: principal conductor and music director. The new head would not only be responsible for the performances, but also the repertory and even the orchestra's business strategy. In that light, Eckhard saw only one adequately qualified candidate for the position: Daniel Barenboim.
Whether or not Petrenko was a compromise candidate, he's surprised observers - and most of all, listeners - before. And he has time. While Munich city officials clamor to hang to their much-loved music director at the Bavarian State Opera just a bit longer - maybe past Rattle's departure date from Berlin in 2018 - the diminutive Russian displays an unhurried poise to match that of the orchestra he will eventually lead.
He can be expected to come to Berlin prepared, to know exactly what he wants - and to drill away unmercifully in rehearsal until he gets that desired sound. The "wild tigers" apparently want that, too.