Two summers ago, the BBC were offered a Proms visit by the Bavarian State Orchestra with its music director, Kirill Petrenko. The conversation went something like this.
BBC: ‘Petrenko, isn’t he the chap that conducts Liverpool?’
Munich: ‘No, that’s Vasily Petrenko. This one is Kirill.’
BBC: ‘Well, we don’t really know about him over here. He won’t sell at the Proms.’
Barely was the snub delivered than Kirill Petrenko was elected music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, the most coveted orchestra on earth, and the music biz had a good laugh at the BBC’s dumb insularity. But let’s not be too beastly to the BBC: its ignorance was universally shared.
The new Berlin chief, in his mid-forties, is as close as you can get to being an unknown commodity. He has never given a media interview (my request for an off-the-record coffee was coolly declined) and has made just five commercial recordings. He refuses to play maestro games — you conduct my orchestra, I’ll conduct yours — and is no respecter of vanities. When the Berliners handed him Sir Simon Rattle’s job, Petrenko swiftly renewed his Munich contract until 2021. He’ll take Berlin in his own time.
It’s hard to keep count of the moulds he has broken. He will be Berlin’s first Russian chief, its first beard since Arthur Nikisch (died 1922), its first Jew. At the time of his election he had not worked with the Berlin Philharmonic for more than four years and had no plans to return. Yet the moment the ballot was cast, Berlin players told anyone who would listen that he was exactly what was needed — a breach with the stolid fixities of orchestral music and a leap into the void with a leader of fixed principles who might, just might, cleanse the system of its toxic delusions.