1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Music over maestros

Kate MüserJune 22, 2015

Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko is to become Sir Simon Rattle's successor at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic. The two couldn't be more different.

Kirill Petrenko, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Esch-Kenkel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Esch-Kenkel

He's just 1.6 meters (5' 3") tall and has a humble but friendly air about him. Known for being tight-lipped with the press, Kirill Petrenko is so atypical for his profession that he's been dubbed the "anti-maestro" by music magazine "Concerti."

And that's exactly what the Berlin Philharmonic wants in the coming years. "We have decided in favor of a musician for whom the score and the work itself is always in the focus and not his own person," said orchestra chairman Peter Riegelbauer at a livestreamed press conference in Berlin on Monday to announce the election of Petrenko, which was decided behind closed doors on Sunday. Nevertheless: "He's always been able to transform a concert hall with his unique charisma."

The orchestra management - largely comprised of musicians from the ensemble - expressed not only sincere confidence in Petrenko, but also deep relief that the selection process had come to an end and that the final decision had found a large majority. "Something very special about our election of Kirill Petrenko is that we made this decision after only having him here three times" as a guest conductor, said chairman Ulrich Knörzer, referring to concerts in 2006, 2009 and 2012.

Simon Rattle conducting, Copyright: D. Kitwood/Getty Images
Simon Rattle has brought the orchestra into the digital ageImage: D. Kitwood/Getty Images

Petrenko was said to have accepted the offer Sunday with the words: "I embrace the orchestra." He added, "Words cannot express my feelings - everything from euphoria to great joy and awe and disbelief."

The Berlin Philharmonic is the only orchestra in the world to elect its own chief conductor. Sunday's deliberations lasted only three-and-a-half hours. On May 11, the 124-member orchestra convened for nearly 12 hours of initial deliberations, which brought no result. The decision was then postponed for one year, so Monday's announcement has come more quickly than expected.

Petrenko was a candidate in the May election, but not considered a favorite. That tag went to Christian Thielemann (56) and Andris Nelsons (37). The orchestra on Monday did not comment on rumors that the two candidates may have withdrawn their availability after not being chosen in the first round.

Beginning of a new era?

As its seventh chief conductor, Petrenko could well alter the Berlin Philharmonic's image and course, which has been shaped by Sir Simon Rattle over the past 13 years. As the German daily "Die Welt" wrote Monday, Petrenko, 43, "is not a public figure, a communicator and a cosmopolitan interview partner, like Simon Rattle was."

Known for being a meticulous perfectionist, Petrenko has a reputation for being very diligent, and drawing the very best out of the orchestras he works with. "Music is not for fun," he told DW's Anastassia Boutsko in a 2006 interview in Berlin. "It's there for us to work on ourselves and become better people."

Andris Nelsons, Copyright: Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons of Latvia had been a favorite for the postImage: beethovenfest.de/Marco Borggreve

The Berliners, it seems, are gearing up for a period of intense rehearsals.

Dubbed the "Siberian Mozart," Kirill Petrenko was born in 1972 in Sibiria to a musical family. Against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, they immigrated to rural Austria when he was 11. Petrenko later studied conducting in Vienna.

Still relatively young, Petrenko has carved himself a distinct niche as an opera conductor. He launched his career in 1997 at the Wiener Volksopera in Vienna before becoming Germany's youngest-ever general director at Meiningen Theater in 1999. It was here in 2001 that he first drew international attention with a critically acclaimed performance of the arduous, four-opera "Ring" cycle by Richard Wagner.

In 2002, Petrenko left Meiningen to spend five years as general director of Berlin's Comic Opera. In 2013, he took up the chief post at the Bavarian State Opera. Since that time, he has also conducted Wagner's "Ring" at the Bayreuth Festival.

From opera to symphonic orchestra

With guest appearances at the world's top opera houses - from Vienna and London to Paris and New York - Petrenko's opera credentials are solid. When it comes to the standard orchestral repertoire that has made the Berlin Philharmonic a global brand, he has less to show.

Berliner Philharmonie, Copyright: S. Gallup/Getty Images
It hasn't yet been decided when the Philharmonie will become Petrenko's new home baseImage: S. Gallup/Getty Images

While Herbert von Karajan, who shaped the ensemble from 1956 to 1989, focused on Classical-Romantic standards like Beethoven, Brucker, Wagner, and Strauss, Simon Rattle, who will maintain the post of chief conductor until 2018, has had his eyes on the 21st century.

In addition to emphasizing contemporary compositions, Rattle has expanded the orchestra's education program, introduced the Digital Concert Hall, and brought the ensemble to audiences further afield in Asia and the Middle East. He's leaving big shoes to fill.

The orchestra's management, at least, is confident he can, even though they were taciturn when it came to describing how Petrenko's opera background would influence the future of the Philharmonic.

Exactly when Petrenko will take up Rattle's baton is also up in the air. Negotiations are set to follow in the coming weeks. Rattle bows out in 2018, and the Berliners said they hope Petrenko will be available to start shortly after.

Despite the question marks, the Berlin Philharmonic has finally reached unanimity and know how they feel about Kirill Petrenko: "The chemistry is there."