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DW program showcases the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Anastassia Boutsko | Cristina Burack
October 21, 2021

In the DW Festival Concert (DWFC) series, DW presents special concerts with which the Berlin Philharmonic emerged from the pandemic lockdown. Tune in!

Kirill Petrenko with orchestra members seen in background
Kirill Petrenko, Chief director of the Berlin PhilharmonicImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

DW Festival Concert: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

It used to be so ordinary: going to an orchestra concert, settling into your seat alongside thousands of other strangers, waiting for the stage lights to go on, the conductor taking his place and the musicians striking their first notes. But for the audience in the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall on March 20th, 2021, the experience was anything but normal.

Berlin musicians with great works of the Russian repertoire

On that Saturday in March, one week before Palm Sunday, some one thousand classical music lovers had the chance to attend a very special concert at the Berlin Philharmonic, right in the middle of Germany's renewed coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

The concert naturally featured the Philharmonic's resident orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic. Chief conductor Kirill Petrenko  was at the podium, leading the physically distanced musicians in a program of two great Russian works: Pyotr Tchaikovsky's fantasy overture to Romeo and Juliet and Sergei Rachmaninoff's iconic Symphony No. 2.

Portrait of William Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare's tale of boundless love inspired composer TchaikovskyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Mary Evans Picture Library

Tchaikovsky's overture to Romeo and Juliet was written in 1869. The composer was inspired by Shakespeare's drama, but the composition is not a musical retelling of the story. Instead, he depicts the elements that give rise to the tragic conflict. First there's the feuding rival families, the Capulets and the Montagues. Then there are the lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky brings these two contrasting worlds together, letting them collide in a most dramatic fashion.

Another piece, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, has a particularly special meaning for conductor Kirill Petrenko. He made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic as a guest conductor in 2006. On the program at the time was Rachmaninoff's second symphony. The piece was close to his heart, Petrenko said at the time in an interview with Deutsche Welle. He became the orchestra's chief conductor in 2019.

Only this year, some 15 years after his original debut, did he and his orchestra perform the Rachmaninoff work for the second time. For Petrenko, it was a re-encounter of sorts, just as the concert was a re-encounter between the orchestra and its audience.

Portrait of Sergei Rachmaninoff
A truly Russian genius: composer Sergei RachmaninoffImage: imago/Itar-Tass

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E minor premiered in Saint Petersburg on February 8th, 1908. His first symphony had been a fiasco, traumatizing the composer and sending him into an artistic and emotional crisis that lasted many years. He desperately needed a success piece, and it came in the form of the second symphony. Critics raved about it: its sheer inexhaustible melodic richness; its Russian power; its melancholy, but also its catharsis. To this day, the piece remains by far the most popular of Rachmaninoff's three symphonies.

A work by Pyotr Tchaikovsky concludes the so-called "European Concert" program of the Berlin Philharmonic. The "European Concert" celebrates the founding of the world-famous orchestra in 1882. Conductor Claudio Abbado led the first European Concert in 1991, so it's been a Berlin Phil tradition for exactly three decades years now.

Kirill Petrenko and soprano Christiane Karg in in the Berlin Philharmonic, with physically distanced musicans and no audience on site.
The "European Concert" in 2020 in the Berlin Philharmonic, with physically distanced musicans and no audience on siteImage: Monika Rittershaus

The European Concert takes places in a different special location every year, someplace that is significant for European culture, like the Vienna Musikverein, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory or the Greek island of Rhodes. But, of course, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the plans for 2021. The musicians had to stay in Germany – so they decided to perform the European Concert in the Berlin Philharmonic, their home base. In other words, it was a sort of house party for the orchestra, but it was definitely different than their usual concerts. Instead of performing in the concert hall, they performed in the foyer.

One of the works played was Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3 in G major.

It's rare to find any of Tchaikovsky's orchestral suites on a concert program these days, even though they stand out among his works. The composer basically treated them as symphonic laboratories in which he experimented and innovated. He used the suite form to channel his emotions directly into sound. The third suite, which he wrote in 1884, is right up there with his late symphonies. Tchaikovsky takes the listener by the hand and leads them through a dramatically diverse series of emotional landscapes.

Deutsche Welle Festival Concert (DWFC): the best of the German festival scene

DW's Cristina Burack smiling into the camera.
Join Cristina Burack as she takes you through the best of Germany's classical music festivalsImage: Privat

Bach in Leipzig, Beethoven in Bonn, Mozart in Würzburg or Wagner in Bayreuth: These landmark music festivals featuring extraordinary composers are part of the audio series, DW Festival Concert  (DWFC). In 13 two-hour episodes, DW brings you all the names that stand for charisma and innovation in the German classical music scene.

The program is produced in two languages, English and Russian, and broadcast through different DW partner radio stations in Canada, the United States and several other English-speaking countries. Russian broadcaster Radio Orpheus is also broadcasting the program in Russian.

Christina Burack is the new host of the program in English.



1. Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture, inspired by William Shakespeare's work
Berlin Philharmonic, Conductor: Kirill Petrenko

2. Sergei Rachmaninoff

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
Berlin Philharmonic, Conductor: Kirill Petrenko


3. Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in G major, Op. 55

valse mélancolique – scherzo – tema con variazioni

Berlin Philharmonic, Conductor: Kirill Petrenko