“I take on this challenge with great pleasure”

Kirill Petrenko, the new chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker

Meiningen, Munich, Berlin – three cities with which Kirill Petrenko has been closely associated thus far in his career: the small former ducal capital in Thuringia, where he conducted the Meiningen premiere of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen on four consecutive evenings in 2001; the Bavarian metropolis, where he brought spectacular new successes to the renowned State Opera; and the German capital, to which – after five years as general music director of the Komische Oper (2002 to 2007) – he now returns to begin his tenure as artistic director of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

“I was born and grew up in Omsk, a city in Siberia which lived from the weapons industry and petrochemicals – thus it was also taboo for foreigners, a ‘closed city’. The chemicals were not very healthy, but there was also a lot of green in the city. Only not in winter, then it was bitterly cold. Sometimes there was no school as a result. The small children could stay home when it was minus 34 degrees; the older ones had to freeze until it reached minus 38 degrees.”

As the child of a musical family – his father was a concertmaster, his mother a dramaturge – it was clear almost from birth that Kirill Petrenko would also become a musician, a conductor, and he was prepared to do everything in order to develop his talent, which he soon demonstrated. From Omsk he went to Feldkirch at the age of 18, then from the conservatory there to the University of Music in Vienna, and from his final exam concert he went directly to the Vienna Volksoper as coach and conductor. He was appointed general music director at the historic Meiningen Theater in 1999, thus beginning a career as an opera conductor which would continue for years to come. Kirill Petrenko was music director of opera houses in three cities, and opera has unquestionably been the focus of his work so far – although initially he had actually wanted to become a symphonic conductor. But the change of emphasis within his profession was an accident that proved to be a stroke of luck.

“My time in Meiningen has been the basis for all of my subsequent career. It was an invaluable period of apprenticeship. Nothing better can happen to a conductor, and I wish that every young colleague could acquire experience in this way and gain a footing. I was very fortunate to be able to begin in Meiningen.”

A storyteller with music

He never lost sight of his original goal, however. Many symphonic programmes at his own theatre and frequent guest appearances with more and more prominent orchestras ensured that, in addition to opera, the concert repertoire was also emphasized. What is more, his experience with music on the stage became an integral component of Kirill Petrenko’s music making; it also influences his interpretation of works without texts or programmes and makes him a storyteller with music:

“Because the beginning of an emotion is always connected to a story as well. We cannot detach ourselves from our surroundings and occupy ourselves with sounds on a purely musical level. There are simply historical and social associations which are incorporated into the music that one must call up again when one interprets it.”

Meiningen, Munich, Berlin: these three cities are already closely connected through the career of Hans von Bülow (1830–1894). During a guest appearance of his Meiningen orchestra, the former Munich court music director inspired the musicians of the Bilse Kapelle to establish the Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester and was later appointed as its first chief conductor. Kirill Petrenko reinforces this fabric with another thread.

“I am privileged because I am following Bülow on my path. He was first in Munich, then in Meiningen, then in Berlin; the sequence is a little different for me, but I feel strongly connected to his tradition through my work with the Meiningen Court Orchestra and the State Opera in Munich. I have studied scores with his annotations everywhere: Brahms in Meiningen, Wagner in Munich, and I am working quite intensively with his Beethoven interpretations.”

Bülow devoted his first season in Meiningen exclusively to works by Beethoven. During his first season as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker Kirill Petrenko will also place special emphasis on Beethoven, with performances of major works such as Fidelio, the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. Several other focuses of his work in Berlin are already clear: the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, Russian classics (this year, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov), works of the 20th and 21st centuries, the composer Josef Suk – focuses which continue the tradition of the orchestra in terms of repertoire selection and interpretation.

Beethoven, Mahler, Suk

“I am also trying to understand what a unique figure Wilhelm Furtwängler was in the conducting world. I am listening to his recordings with fascination – although his interpretative approaches are different from mine, Furtwängler implanted a gene in the Berliner Philharmoniker that may still be perceptible today. Like me, Herbert von Karajan was in the provinces for many years and developed his expertise there; he also came from the opera, was a practitioner par excellence and understood the material down to the last detail. In that respect, he is a great example to me – although, as with Furtwängler, I take a different view on many things, for example, regarding tempos, articulation and sound. That is quite natural – we live in a different time, we feel a different responsibility towards the sources, less to an overall ideal of tonal beauty. That is also good, because only in that way do we develop our perspective of the works. But for me, this line Bülow – Furtwängler – Karajan is a very strong, decisive inspiration. Based on that, I would like to continue what, later, Claudio Abbado and, most recently, Simon Rattle have achieved – expansion of the repertoire, further development of the tonal profile, the unique quality of the orchestra’s sound.”

Kirill Petrenko conducted his first concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2006; the programme included Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. At that time he commented on the extraordinary quality of the orchestra:

“The remarkable thing about the Berliner Philharmoniker is the ability and the courage of each individual musician, whether solo wind or tutti string player, to exude such great freedom while playing. A freedom which keeps the entire structure in view at all times, a controlled risk in which the overall coherence does not begin to falter but which nevertheless allows a complete unleashing during the performance.”

After only three projects together, the Philharmoniker were convinced that Kirill Petrenko should become their new chief conductor. Since the election in June 2015 he has already rehearsed and conducted four concert programmes with the Berliners. Now he is there. “I already know Berlin as a city; I lived here for eleven years, so it is a bit like a return for me. I could never have imagined that I could take on the Berliner Philharmoniker as artistic director, though – that was completely inconceivable to me. It is still not easy for me to come to terms with the idea. But now I take on this challenge with great pleasure.”

Malte Krasting