Norman Lebrecht

The new head of the Berlin Philharmonic was no-one’s first choice

The new head of the Berlin Philharmonic was no-one's first choice
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Let’s face facts. Kirill Petrenko was no-one’s first choice as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

His name came into the reckoning only after 124 orchestra members split fatally down the middle in an all-day election on May 11, half of them voting for the German favourite Christian Thielemann and the other half for the blazing young Latvian, Andris Nelsons. By nightfall, the players were at each other’s throats and wiser heads knew they had to seek a third candidate, a compromise.

But who? The Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, who set the orchestra alight last week, had ruled himself out. So had Daniel Barenboim, Mariss Jansons, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and other front-runners. Kirill Petrenko, 43, in his second year as music director at Bavarian State Opera, privately signalled his disinterest in the job.

But Petrenko likes Berlin. He had a good time as music director at the Komische Oper from 2002 to 2007 and conducted the Philharmonic three times, getting to know and like some of its players. When they phoned him last night with the election result, he accepted with ‘euphoria and joy’.

That won’t last. Kirill Petrenko is a passionate, committed conductor of Siberian birth – the first Russian to be chosen as Philharmonic chief conductor; also the first Jew. Meticulous in rehearsal, he gets most out of musicians and singers by appearing always to be on their side. His success – his survival - through several summers at Bayreuth demonstrate an inner toughness that is concealed by a shy, self-deprecating exterior. He fell out with Katharina Wagner this month over a change of cast and has told her he will not return.

Like Thielemann, he is a profound and experienced Wagnerian, steeped in German repertoire. Like Nelsons, he has the Russian masters at his fingertips. In this sense, he brings the best of both worlds.

However, his shyness is a problem. The Berlin Phil is a flagship ensemble for German culture and its leader needs to be seen and heard on the high media seas, leading the fleet to triumph. Petrenko gives few interviews and betrays nothing of his inner self.

Worse, he is completely unknown abroad, in the territories where the Berlin Phil needs to be number one. A few guest appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and the Concertgebouw left no lasting impression. He has never toured Japan or China. He has made hardly any recordings. Berlin will have to build his profile up from scratch before 2018 in order to maintain its myth of being the world’s premier orchestra with the greatest living conductor.

Nor is the orchestra by any means at peace with itself. Thielemann’s supporters remain unhappy; their man recently picked a fight with Petrenko in Bayreuth. A backstage visitor last week reported high levels of personal tension at the Philharmonie. It will be down to Petrenko to heal the feud, and it won’t be easy.

If he succeeds in settling the ghosts, Berlin can look forward to levels of energised music making it has not experienced since Rattle’s first seasons. Petrenko spares nothing in his musical passions and gives both musicians and audience the feeling that the music could not be performed in any other way. He is a genuine maestro. The compromise candidate may yet prove to be an inspired choice.