At the turn of the year, people like to be in company. You want to look into the eyes of your loved ones, and throw your arms around complete strangers. You may also look for a moment of pause to reflect together on the past and look forward with hope to the future. What better way to enhance this than through music, than to attend a concert with 2249 other people? – especially if it is a programme in which the proverbial fireworks can be expected from the work titles alone! In December 2019, that time of year comes round again in the Philharmonie. For the first time, the new chief conductor will conduct a New Year’s Eve programme. People were surprised when his programme concept was announced: with the wonderful soprano Diana Damrau at his side, there was to be music from the USA, songs from Broadway musicals and sparkling orchestral works, with George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim at the heart of the programme. But people who have followed Kirill Petrenko’s career even just a little should not be so surprised. After all, the world of light music has always been familiar to him, and the supposedly ʻlightʼ is even one of his serious passions. His debut at the Volksoper in Vienna was Oscar Straus’ Walzertraum, and operettas from Johann Strauss to Franz Lehár are as much part of his repertoire as Don Giovanni, Tristan and Isolde and Lulu.
Focus on Gershwin
This summer at the Munich Opera Festival, he showed how much he loves the light genre at a large, open-air concert on Marstallplatz behind the Nationaltheater. On a warm July evening under cloudless skies and with an audience of over 10,000, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester presented music from Broadway, including Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town” and a series of songs from musicals. The reviewer of the Süddeutsche Zeitung was in awe: “Everything sounds as much in love with detail as with an alert ear for the whole as if Petrenko conducted this musical repertoire every evening.” The Abendzeitung heard an unusual approach to this kind of music: “In the American works steeped in jazz and blues, he [...] pleasantly refrains from overemphasising the swinging element. Rather, he takes Gershwin’s tone poem An American in Paris as seriously as a symphony, attaching importance to finely spun strings and impressionistic colours of the woodwinds.” Taking George Gershwin seriously should of course be taken for granted. A sharp-minded musician, he never stopped wanting to expand his knowledge, and took lessons from a variety of composers until the end of his life. His curiosity about other styles was not to be satisfied.
Love from the first note
As noted above, there is a second protagonist in the upcoming Berlin New Year’s Eve concerts: the soprano Diana Damrau. Actually, she should be at the very beginning of our present overview, as the starting point of Kirill Petrenko’s plan was to design the evening together with her. The two have known each other for almost 15 years: “We met at Ariadne on Naxos when I made my Met debut in New York. And it was really love from the first note,” says the soprano. “There is so much that I admire about him: his precision, his search for timbres and for the appropriate expression, his need to get to the bottom of the pieces – and yet always be free to just make music. With him I feel in the best of hands.” So far, in addition to the Strauss opera mentioned above, the two have also performed together his Four Last Songs, several Magic Flutes (in which Damrau appeared sometimes as Queen of the night, sometimes as Pamina) and a new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Away from the serious, Diana Damrau can also fall back on relevant experience: as an ensemble member of the Würzburg Stadttheater, alternating with appearances as Queen of the Night, she sang and danced her way through the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady no less than 60 times. With her album Forever, she enchantingly documented her love of songs from Vienna, Broadway and Hollywood. The attraction of walking these other paths together apparently grabbed the two of them almost at the same time. As a result, a long wish list quickly came together, from which a small selection had to be made for the programme. Besides the American in Paris, the programme also includes the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Diana Damrau will sing I Feel Pretty from the same musical, evoke Judy Garland with Over the Rainbow from The Wizard Of Oz, and perform other works from Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers. In addition to a few songs from Kurt Weill, Kirill Petrenko will also play rarely heard orchestral pieces from the composer’s American creative phase.
A strong team Plus, there is another Gershwin piece: the overture to Girl Crazy. The list of participants in the 1930 production reads like a who’s who of the musical show business of the time: Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey and Gene Krupa were among the instrumentalists, Ginger Rogers took part, and Ethel Merman made her Broadway debut and drove the audience wild when she held a high C over 16 bars during I Got Rhythm. Of course, the song also features in the overture. Another big hit of the musical is Embraceable You, and with enough rhythm coursing through their veins after the Berliner Philharmoniker’s New Year’s Eve concerts, each and every audience member will be worthy of a friendly hug.
This text is the abridged version of an article by Malte Krasting for the magazine 128 (volume December 2019). Copies of the issue (in German) are available in our online shop and in the Philharmonie shop.