Simon Rattle’s successor takes over – and shows why he was orchestra’s choice of conductor
The Berlin Philharmonic, considered by many to be the world’s finest orchestra, ushered in a new era in its 137-year history at the Philharmonie concert hall on Friday.
Simon Rattle, the orchestra’s chief conductor since 2002, stepped down last year after a reportedly turbulent 16-year tenure. Rattle is now back in the UK, the music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, and in his place in Berlin is the 47-year-old Russian-Austrian conductor Kirill Petrenko.
In his inaugural concert as chief conductor, Petrenko led the orchestra in scenes from Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He first guest-conducted the orchestra in 2006 and apparently cemented his hold on their hearts when in 2009 he performed Elgar’s Second Symphony, but Friday night was a moment of real occasion, the equivalent in orchestral terms of the unveiling of the next James Bond or Doctor Who.
Many people did indeed ask “who?” when Petrenko’s appointment was announced back in 2015 following a secret vote by the orchestra’s musicians (in Berlin, unlike other leading orchestras, the players not the management have the power to fire and hire their conductor). Petrenko had spent the previous decade working in German opera houses, becoming a highly respected musician also known for his extreme shyness and an ardent dislike of giving interviews. As he takes over in Berlin, he remains music director of the Bavarian State Opera – but his profile is slight, especially outside Germany.
But in an age when conductors are meant to be social-media savvy, Petrenko presumably thinks tweeting is for the birds – and, characteristically, has not uttered a word to newspapers or magazines about his new appointment.
Walking on stage to conduct this concert, surely the apex of his career, Petrenko looked more like a man who had come to fix your boiler than one assuming the mantle of the most sought-after job in conducting. There was no basking in the warm applause that accompanied his entrance. The briefest of nods in acknowledgement, and it was straight to the podium.
And, as the weave of intricately knitted, hushed strings of Berg’s Lulu began, it was obvious why the orchestra wanted Petrenko. He has a gift for illuminating the innards of a score. After the interval, his high-velocity Beethoven crackled with muscular rhythmic energy. On occasion he stopped beating time and leaned in towards a particular section of players, like a painter intensifying the detail of his brushstrokes – a strategy that, in Beethoven’s hell-for-leather second movement, provoked an apocalyptic eruption from the general direction of the double basses. This suggests the reports of the explosive Beethoven Seventh Symphony he brought to last year’s Proms were no fluke – Petrenko is a deep thinker about music, who reliably brings out the best in an orchestra.
One criticism aimed at Rattle, who expanded the orchestra’s repertoire into the likes of modern British music and US jazz, was that the core German repertoire suffered neglect (unfair given that he recorded Brahms, Schumann, Beethoven and Mahler with the Philharmonic). The last time I was at the Philharmonie I saw the British conductor lead the audience in a Conga from Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town. Petrenko isn’t going to be dancing in the aisles. Recording and education outreach work will continue, but in terms of repertoire the Berlin Phil has clearly decided to refocus – and Petrenko, they feel, is the man to reconnect them with their core concerns.