The Berlin Philharmonic Announces Their Next Chief Conductor
The venerable Berlin Philharmonic isn't known for impetuous courtships. But after conducting only three programs, the darkest of horses - Kirill Petrenko - was invited last week to succeed Simon Rattle as the Orchestra's chief conductor. Can the Berlin Philharmonic survive without its usual star power? The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns reports.
David Patrick Stearns: Kirill Petrenko sent symphonic music geeks around the globe scrambling for recorded evidence of what, exactly, made the Berlin Philharmonic elect him in its Vatican-like, closed-door meetings last week.
It's often said that conducting an orchestra of this caliber is like conquering China; you can try, but you're the one who ends up conquered.
Not to be mistaken for the better-known British-based Vasily Petrenko, this 43-year-old Russian-born, Austria-trained chief conductor at the Bavarian State Opera is also a frequent Metropolitan Opera guest, but appears to be far less seasoned with the basic Brahms, Beethoven and Mahler symphonies.
And yet, the depth of anguish and harmonic muscle he brings to Strauss’ Metamorphosen makes me want to hear him in most anything. It’s a tough piece to sustain, but Petrenko does it. And that’s typical. He solves problem pieces, whether Tchaikovsky’s sprawling Manfred Symphony, or Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera, Khovanshchina.
Certain priorities resurface in his performances. Petrenko doesn’t ask what the music says, so much as he asks what it needs to speak most eloquently. That doesn’t mean his performances are all strategy and no heart. But the Berlin Philharmonic, which often sounds like it’s speaking a third language when playing music outside of its Germanic comfort zone, played Elgar’s ultra-British Symphony No. 2 like natives under Petrenko.
However, I hear two dangers ahead. The Berlin Philharmonic is an industry leader. It needs to sell more than concert tickets, but concert video subscriptions to far away Philadelphians, who will make room in their lives for Simon Rattle. I recently subscribed to the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall out of Petrenko curiosity and he's pretty magnetic. But will he stay that way?
It’s often said that conducting an orchestra of this caliber is like conquering China: You can try, but you're the one who ends up conquered. That’s one theory why Simon Rattle usually usually does better work in Philadelphia than in Berlin. Even the best conductors can lose their mojo after landing a major job such as this.
Petrenko's trademark is refined, yet robust sonority, fueled by a power and weight that's more than superficial excitement - but comes from within. And that's mojo. If he keeps that – plus all the artistry behind it - Petrenko and the Orchestra should be just fine.