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Why Conductor Kirill Petrenko Fits The Berlin Philharmonic

Kirill Petrenko will become the next chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018.
Wilfried Hösl
Berlin Philharmonic
Kirill Petrenko will become the next chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018.

When the Berlin Philharmonic chooses a new chief conductor, it's a big deal. In May the orchestra, often hailed as the world's finest, sequestered itself for a secret vote and some European papers likened the event to a papal conclave. That vote failed, but on June 22 the self-governed Philharmonic suddenly announced Kirill Petrenko as its new chief conductor designate, to replace Simon Rattle in 2018.

The 43-year-old, Siberian-born Petrenko is not a marquee name and was absent from many short lists of potential Berlin candidates. He has pursued his career relatively quietly, earning praise for conducting Wagner at Bayreuth and for his work at the Bavarian State Opera, which he has directed since 2013. He made his Berlin Philharmonic debut in 2006 and has conducted the orchestra on two more occasions.

Since Petrenko is little-known (not to be confused with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conductor Vasily Petrenko — no relation) and not yet giving interviews, I called Berlin Philharmonic horn player Sarah Willis to give us an insider's perspective on why the choice is a good fit for the orchestra. Willis has played with the Philharmonic since 2001.

Tom Huizenga: Some classical music fans, especially Americans, might say that they know very little about Kirill Petrenko. He's not really a big name conductor, so when the Berlin Philharmonic chose him as its next chief conductor, it might have been something of a surprise.

Sarah Willis: I think it seems to have been a surprise for a lot of people. On the other hand, for the people, especially in Europe, Kirill Petrenko is sort of a well-kept secret. Everything he does really turns to gold. He's so respected in the profession, but he's someone that doesn't do many interviews. He hasn't got a high media profile. So, yes, I expect that many people found that a very unusual choice, those who hadn't heard of him before, but I assure you, you will be hearing a lot about him.

Was he on your or the other Berlin Philharmonic players' radar for a while?

He's been on our radar for a while. The first time I played with him was in 2009 and also that's when I got to meet him by interviewing him for the [Berlin Philharmonic's] Digital Concert Hall. I remember having to persuade him to do that one — I went in and practically begged and said, "Please, maestro, please! I'll be very nice, I'll be very gentle." And he said "Okay, well, only if Lars Vogt comes along as well." So we did the interview, all three of us, and it was great. But I remember asking him in that interview how he felt, and I remember him saying he was very shy standing there for the first time. But also I remember very strongly the feeling of seeing him right at the beginning of the rehearsal and just knowing that there's something very special. Most of my colleagues were all feeling the same thing. What usually happens when a new conductor comes is we all talk amongst ourselves during the coffee breaks about whether we're going to invite him back. But with Maestro Petrenko, it was like, "When are you coming back?" It was really love at first sight. We really appreciated what he was doing.

Had you heard him conduct before he guest conducted the Berlin Philharmonic?

I had, yes, because he was at [Berlin's] Komische Oper before, so he was known to Berliners. He had done some great productions at the Komische Oper, so I'd heard some of those things before.

Was he always a leading candidate for the job?

All I can say is that we were obviously spoiled for choice. There are so many great conductors out there at the moment and everybody had their own favorite and everybody knew who they would like. It just was a question of finding out where the camps lay. And Kirill Petrenko's name came up and obviously people had been giving it a lot of thought. And he got the job, so obviously that shows there was a lot of support for him.

There's this interview that you did with Petrenko, that you talked about, and you tell him that the orchestra couldn't wait to invite him back. The musicians were smiling in rehearsals and your face, in the video, is just beaming with delight. Why all this joy over Petrenko?

For me, it was like playing chamber music with someone for the first time, and you just know it's going to work. And that's one of the most wonderful things about music, is that you can play with great musicians and it works well, but you have to work on little corners and the little things. But then comes along a musician where you just feel like he's speaking your language and it just clicks. That is really the feeling I had with Petrenko on the very first day he was there. I understood what he wanted. I appreciated the way he showed it.

In the concerts, if you look at the end of the Scriabin video — Le Poème de l'extase — you will know exactly what I'm talking about. This guy gives his absolute all in concerts and my heart just burst. I knew it at the very beginning that this was something very special. He hasn't been there very often so we are taking, of course, a little bit of a chance. He's not a pop star, he's not someone who's been around for a long time. It's all about the music with him.

Some of the things you just mentioned — this special feeling of music making — are important, but why do you think he's going to make a particularly good fit with the Berlin Philharmonic?

I think he's going to bring all of his passion to our orchestra, which is a great thing. I think he's going to bring a lot of forward thinking to the orchestra. He's also going to bring a lot of discipline — the guy works all day. I never knew him to finish a rehearsal a second earlier than was planned. You know how orchestra musicians love to be let off five minutes early — that never happened with him. And he really takes it to different levels, and I think his ability to do that is going to be a great thing for us.

You talked a little bit about it already, but how do you know when a conductor is hitting it off good an orchestra? Is it like dating? Do you get some kind of undefinable giddy feeling, like there are these vibes?

I like that comparison, that it's like dating. I can't really speak for myself because we're 128 musicians and everyone has their own very strong opinions in my orchestra. But, as you can see, we voted him in, so obviously the majority were feeling like I did. I think it is a little bit like dating and, like I said, with chamber music. You just sense right at the beginning if this is going to work, and it did. It's a great feeling when that happens. It doesn't always happen in music like that. You can meet someone, play for someone, who you think, "Yeah, that's okay." Then they work very well but in the concert it's sort of maybe not quite as inspiring as you'd hope — or someone who doesn't work very well but then comes alive in concert. But with Petrenko, I had the feeling that it was really both. It worked really well, and the concerts were electrifying.

In a video interview that you gave for Deutsche Welle about Petrenko you say, "He doesn't do much, but what he does do is perfect."

Yeah. He's not a showman. Petrenko doesn't think about whether this gesture will look good. At least, that's not the feeling I get. What he does just works. It's a question of body language and I think anyone who watches any videos of his will see what I'm talking about. The problem is there isn't much of him out there because he hasn't been the biggest media person up until now. I think he's very aware that that's all going to change, especially with the Digital Concert Hall and all the touring that we're going to be doing. As I say, we don't know him all that well yet, so I think it was a big surprise to us all that a lot of us felt like that.

Do you get any sense of what his personality is like?

I only met him personally for this [Digital Concert Hall] interview. Otherwise I was just in the orchestra. I found him very shy, very humble, but incredibly genuine. I found it very touching that he could be like that and be such a big maestro.

What's his podium demeanor like? Is he easy to follow?

He's very easy to follow. But I've only played two or three concerts with him, so it's a little hard to say. I've watched some things he's done and in Bayreauth — they're all raving about him. He's very polite but knows exactly what he wants and he can explain that in very few words. He's not one of those conductors who will talk for hours so people stop listening. He really says what he needs very concisely and he doesn't have to say too much because he can show it. We like conductors like that.

Well, it helps that he's conducting an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic ...

Yeah, but sometimes it's hard to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Because the Berlin Philharmonic obviously has its own ideas of how a piece should be and if they feel like it, they can play a piece how they want. Obviously we make an effort to see what the conductor wants, but it's quite easy for us to play a piece the way we know it. It's important that a conductor comes in and then brings his version to it and also keeps us on the straight and narrow.

I know that back when Simon Rattle was first appointed as the chief conductor, he told us here at NPR that conducting the Berlin Philharmonic was like conducting 128 Laurence Oliviers. All these superstars.

[Laughs] I remember Simon at the beginning conducting a Bruckner symphony and he stopped, and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, it sounds absolutely amazing. And it's nothing at all like what I'm conducting." Another time, in a Mahler symphony, he tried to conduct a little rubato bit, and he stopped and said, "I'm sorry, but you're playing for Claudio [Abbado]." And we really were! We were playing the piece that way Claudio used to conduct it and Simon wanted to do something different.

You mentioned that you are looking forward to some changes that Petrenko could make as the next conductor. Any ideas about what changes he might make?

I'm not sure whether I meant changes changes, because I don't know enough about him to know exactly what he will want to change, but obviously every new conductor will want to bring his own ideas into the orchestra. Petrenko, the way I can judge his character now, I think he's going to come in very respectfully. I don't think he's going to bring a thousand changes with him. He's going to come and see what it's all about and maybe introduce a few things. But I really don't know him well enough to say what they will be.

We just talked about the orchestra playing things how they want to ...

I'm not saying that we play how we want to — we can play pieces how we know them. But that's why we appreciate it when conductors come and really show off what they want, because it's very easy to play how you know. I'm not saying we do it on purpose. That would be mean.

How would any conductor work with changing the sound of an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic.

I don't know many conductors that want to change the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. I think that's what they enjoy. The Berlin Philharmonic has such a unique sound. This huge string body, which is just incredible. I've never heard a string sound like it — you can bathe in it. I don't think a conductor comes in with the intention to change it. They come in with the intention of making the best job with what they have and bringing their ideas into that. I've rarely found that someone wants to change the sound. Except when the brass are loud, but that's normal. Brass are always too loud.

[Laughs] Well, what happens in the orchestra when a conductor wants things that maybe some of the players in the orchestra don't want? I'm sure not everyone was in love with every interpretation Rattle has made over the years.

Of course, but that's normal. An orchestra is like a family. We spend most of our time together. When the head of the family wants something, some of the family will think it's great and the rest of the family may not think it's great from time to time, but it's the head of the family, so that's what happens.

So, a virtuoso orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic ... can you be challenged these days? Is there anything that can mess with your heads musically?

Sure. We definitely have our challenges. For example, we just played an evening of film music in the Waldbühne, our open air concert, for the end of the season. I remember Simon telling us the week before, he said, "Guys, get the music, you can't sight read this." And there were a few huffs, but he was absolutely right. We don't sight read very much in our orchestra. Our first rehearsals tend to be interesting. But what I admire so much about this orchestra is that the second rehearsal is always amazing, so much better.

For film music, it's stuff that you Americans can just play in your sleep — Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., all this wonderful John Williams stuff, Ben Hur, Robin Hood. You guys know all this, but we were lost! It took time and he was absolutely right. Everybody had to take away their parts and practice like crazy.

Simon has brought amazing, fantastic modern pieces to us over the last 15 years, and that was something the orchestra hadn't done so much of before. And that was also a challenge but now it's sort of routine, that he brings these weird and wonderful pieces to us. Some of them I love, some of them I don't, but I'm just really happy that I've gotten to know so much. We had another challenge with Porgy and Bess, which is something you Americans can play in your sleep. For us, it was not so easy to do the "swing."

I'm so glad that Simon Rattle has been such a champion of Thomas Adès, because I really love his music. I wonder if you have any notion of what Petrenko, repertoire-wise, might bring to the orchestra at this point.

I don't have any notion, to be perfectly honest. I played two Russian programs with him and then he did an Elgar symphony. He hasn't done that much Beethoven or Bruckner in his life, I don't think, so that will be really interesting to see his interpretations of these. I'm sure he'll be bringing the bread and butter, but I can imagine he'll be someone who will bring some new stuff. Also, what I'm really looking forward to is playing operas with him. He's going to be fantastic in the pit. They adore him at Bayreuth and I think he's going to be a wonderful addition for our opera repertoire.

Do you think he might do what Alan Gilbert does in New York and bring some concert versions of opera to the Philharmonic?

I would absolute adore that if he did, and I think it would be a wonderful thing for us. What Alan did with Sweeney Todd, for example, that was just unforgettable. That was such a wonderful thing. So, yes, please! Maestro Petrenko, bring us some concertante operas and musicals!

You say he might bring some Germanic bread and butter to the repertoire. And that got me thinking about the orchestra itself, so revered in the German repertoire — but how many musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic these days are actually German? Isn't it a truly global orchestra at this point?

We've turned into a truly global orchestra. I think we're still over half Germans, but only just. If you look only at our horn section, we have three Germans, a Scot, a Brit, a Slovenian. So yeah, we're very international. That's just the horn section alone. I love it. We always take people who play with a big, German sound. I'm English, but apparently I play with a big, German sound.

Are there some pieces that you would like to play with Petrenko once he gets on board?

I think with Petrenko it's going to be very interesting to see what he's going to bring. I couldn't say what I want to play. I am so grateful to Simon Rattle for all the pieces I've learned under his baton. He's brought things to the Berlin Phil that I wouldn't never have dreamed playing otherwise, for example Porgy and Bess and Thomas Adès, who I just adore — I studied with him, he was in my general musicianship class in college. Simon has just brought incredible repertoire — so much Janáček and then Rameau. Which conductor offers such a wide palette of music? I don't think Petrenko's going to come with such a wide palette at the beginning. I think he's going to bring what he feels comfortable with and bring things that are very important to him. And until we see what he's bringing, he might totally surprise us. Who knows.

It's going to be an adventure, that's for sure.

I think the Berlin Phil has sent out a really good signal into the music world. We've chosen to take a chief conductor who is not very showy, but he's all about the music, and he's also a bit unknown. It's an adventure for us — we're not quite sure what's going to come either, but we're all really looking forward to it. I must say, though, on a personal note, I still can't imagine the Berlin Phil without Sir Simon. It's going to be a very sad day when he leaves. I'll miss his humor more than anything — it's so great to have British humor in the orchestra.

Okay, final question: Single best thing about Petrenko?

The single best thing up until now — because I don't know him that well — I would say is his passion for the music. It is so evident in everything he does, whether it is in the rehearsal or in the concert, his absolute, all-consuming passion for the music. It is very moving and very inspiring.

You can see that in the video clips, especially the Scriabin.

I was very proud of my orchestra for posting that, because that actually says it all.

The music is so great itself, and then it's so well-played, and you see him kind of losing himself in it, with all this joy and ecstasy.

But also conductors can lose themselves and go into ecstatic places, but then they also lose their conducting, so you don't really know what's going on.

So true.

This is a well-known problem. I'm all for conductors giving their all and losing themselves, but we still need to have a beat. If you look at the Scriabin Le Poème de l'extase video, you can tell Petrenko is totally into the music but we still know what's going on.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.