Saturday, June 27, 2015

Kirill Petrenko Takes Over Berlin Philharmonic

Last week the world's most renowned orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, announced that Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko would succeed Sir Simon Rattle as music director in August of 2018. The news did not take America by storm.  Few people ever even heard of him.  I have been confusing him with Vasily Petrenko.  So when I received an excited e-mail from a Russian friend who otherwise never e-mails, saying "Wow! This is quite incredible; after Furtwangler, Karajan, Abbado, and Rattle, now this orchestra will be led by a man of the Russian-Jewish (and Soviet) upbringing - a rare moment these days when one can be proud to be Russian,"  I had to Google Petrenko to establish which one he was talking about.

There is actually no reason why Kirill Petrenko should be little known in the United States. When he performed here with the Cleveland Orchestra in 2009 and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2012, he received generally glowing reviews. He conducted Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina” at the Metropolitan Opera in 2012 also with great acclaim.

According to Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times: "Perhaps the most impressive performance was Mr. Petrenko’s. The orchestra rose to powerful climaxes, but in quieter, conversational moments he held the sound carefully below the singers. His pacing was controlled but flexible, ebbing, flowing and inexorably building under Shaklovity’s dark monologue bemoaning the state of Russia."

Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012
But Petrenko's performances in the U.S. have not been announced with great pomp as those of his compatriot Valery Gergiev, who enjoys a celebrity status here.  Petrenko seems to be far more appreciated in Europe where he is best known as an opera conductor.  In the past couple of years he has enjoyed success as the music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.  His take  on Wagner’s “Ring” at the Bayreuth Festival in 2013 also was admired.

Gergiev has conducted some of the best orchestras in the world and there is no doubt that if he wanted to leave Russia for a prestigious position anywhere in the world, he could, said Washington-based Russia analyst Peter Eltsov. "Yet Gergiev has lent his art and his name to raising the profile of his political patron, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, " Eltsov said in an article on Gergiev in The Atlantic magazine.

Petrenko on the other hand has remained silent regarding his stance on Putin’s policies. As far as I am concerned, he can stay that way. When I listen to music I don't want to have to worry whether the performer has been politically correct or not. Gergiev is one of my most favorite contemporary conductors and he became one before I knew anything about his political sympathies. I enjoyed every performance he conducted here in Washington and in terms of recordings, I think he energizes anything he conducts, regardless of how many flaws some critics find.  

I also consider Furtwangler's "Ring" the best on record and enjoy most of what Karajan conducted.  Both have been suspected or openly accused of Nazi sympathies.  Should I shun them?  Perhaps.  But some of my best friends also have what many would consider unacceptable political opinions.   I still love them just don't discuss politics with them.  I like to think that art, friendship and love are eternal and celestial. Politics is earthly and passing.

Still it will be easier to listen to Petrenko without having to worry about what he thinks of Putin.

He will be the first Russian-born conductor, as well as the first Jewish one, to take the job in the orchestra’s 133-year history.  
It would appear that he beat German Christian Thielemann and Latvian Andris Nelsons, for the lofty position in Berlin.

“Words cannot express my feelings, everything from euphoria and great joy to awe and disbelief,” Petrenko said. “I am aware of the responsibility and high expectations, and I will do everything in my power to be a worthy conductor of this outstanding orchestra.”

"He has led the Berlin Philharmonic only three times before, choosing the eclectic repertoire including music by Bartok, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Scriabin. He can be expected to move the orchestra away from the Germanic masterpieces at the core of its repertoire," The New York Times said. I will be looking forward to following that development.

To clarify any confusion with Kirill's namesake: Vasily Petrenko is Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director of the Oslo Philharmonic.

He has recently caused a hoopla by telling the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten that orchestras “react better” when the conductor is a man. “When women get a family, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as the job demands,” he added, joining the army of politically incorrect artists.

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