Berlin Philharmonic's new head Kirill Petrenko a quiet and shy man

Kirill Petrenko (left) has won fans wherever he has conducted, and has become known for his exacting standards.
Kirill Petrenko (above) has won fans wherever he has conducted, and has become known for his exacting standards.PHOTO: REUTERS

New York - When the Berlin Philharmonic announced on Monday that its next chief conductor would be Kirill Petrenko, the Russian-born music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, it was awarding one of the most prestigious posts in classical music to a widely respected artist who has largely shunned the spotlight courted by some of his peers.

Case in point: Petrenko, 43, is in the midst of rehearsals at the Bayreuth Festival and so did not attend the hastily arranged news conference in Berlin, where his appointment was announced a day after the musicians of the Philharmonic, a self-governing orchestra, met in secret near their concert hall. There they elected him the latest in a line of distinguished leaders that has included Hans von Bulow, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and the current conductor, Simon Rattle.

It was not the musicians' first attempt to choose a successor to Rattle, who will leave the post in 2018. At a marathon 11-hour meeting last month, the musicians cast several ballots, but failed to agree on a candidate, raising questions about the role of modern conductors, and what course the orchestra intends to chart in the 21st century.

In choosing Petrenko, who is best known as an opera conductor, the Philharmonic's players bypassed a number of more famous maestros and opted for a quiet, diligent musician who has won the admiration of orchestras, critics and audiences. In some ways he is the opposite of the jet-setters who have increasingly become the norm in the field, arranging his schedule in recent years to devote more of his time to fewer ensembles.

"The orchestra and the score itself are always the focus - not his own person," Peter Riegelbauer, a musician on the orchestra's board, said at the news conference. But, he added: "He is always able to transform a concert hall with his unique charisma."

There are risks to the appointment. Few couples would marry after only three dates, no matter how great, and Petrenko has conducted the Philharmonic only three times. Last December, because of shoulder pain, he withdrew at short notice from a fourth engagement to conduct Mahler's Sixth Symphony.

That Mahler was to have been his first foray into the standard symphonic literature with the orchestra, is a reminder that his orchestral repertoire is not as wide as that of some other candidates. And his seeming reticence - he declined to be interviewed on Monday - could pose a challenge for an international orchestra that valued Rattle's ability to talk about its art with audiences and the news media alike.

But he has won fans wherever he has conducted and has become known for his exacting standards. His work at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich has been praised, and officials there said on Monday that they still hoped to extend his contract beyond 2018.

He received acclaim for his earlier run as music director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, as well as engagements with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra and other ensembles. In 2012, he led a production of Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina at the Metropolitan Opera that was a highlight of the season. And, in 2013, his conducting of Wagner's Ring cycle at Bayreuth was applauded, even if the production was not.

Petrenko was born in Omsk in Siberia and emigrated at the age of 18 with his family to Austria, where his father, a violinist, got a post with a provincial orchestra. In a statement, he admitted to a certain disbelief at being selected by the Berlin Philharmonic.

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

Mr Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, called Petrenko an "inspired choice" and said that he hoped the new position might make a return engagement at the Met more likely for Petrenko. He also said he considered the conductor a noteworthy choice for Berlin, an orchestra with complicated dynamics that can seem to require deft political leadership.

"It's interesting that they picked somebody who is clearly not interested in politics," he said.

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2015, with the headline 'Berlin Philharmonic's new head a quiet and shy man'. Print Edition | Subscribe