On June 22, it was announced that the musicians of the celebrated Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) have elected their first-ever Jewish music director, the Russian maestro Kirill Petrenko. Not only was this choice ground-breaking, it was an indirect response to another job candidate, the German conductor Christian Thielemann whose right-wing politics and anti-immigrant feelings seemed to grab as many headlines as his music-making of late. Petrenko himself is indubitably an immigrant; he was born in 1972 in Omsk and emigrated to Austria in 1990. He served as general music director at Berlin’s Komische Oper from 2002 to 2007 and has been director of the Bavarian state opera since 2013. His contract there runs until 2018, so he is expected to take over the BPO soon afterwards. The Berlin players already know him well, as he has worked as guest conductor there in 2006, 2009, and 2012. Compared to his immediate predecessors at the BPO, the Englishman Simon Rattle and Italian Claudio Abbado, he may well prove to be less of a fish out of water.
Whereas the favored repertoires and music-making styles of Abbado and Rattle clashed to some degree with the BPO’s staunch and stolid Germanic tradition, Petrenko looks likely to be easily assimilated, perhaps due to his life experiences. In a 2012 performance available online of Scriabin’s monumental “Poem of Ecstasy,” Petrenko leads the BPO without a baton, with the hand gestures of a predecessor such as Dimitri Mitropoulos. Petrenko’s facial expressions and little gremlin-like hops recall a noted protégé of Mitropoulos’s, Leonard Bernstein. His miming and humorous gestures are also in the Bernstein tradition. In terms of musical substance, the approach to Scriabin, to play loud, louder, and loudest, evokes the ear-splitting decibel levels from the heyday of the always-thrilling Hungarian Jewish maestro Georg Solti. So while he is relatively young for a conductor, in his mid-to-late 40s when the BPO appointment will take effect, his performing roots date back a considerable time.
This historical resonance in his conducting persona may be due to the fact that his principal mentor as an aspiring young conductor was the Slovenian Uroš Lajovic, himself a pupil of the Austrian conductor of Hungarian Jewish origin, Hans Swarowsky (1899-1975). A pupil of Felix Weingartner and Arnold Schoenberg, among others, Swarowsky would go on to teach many now-famous conductors, including Abbado, Zubin Mehta, and Iván Fischer. This reflected background of mastering Middle European culture may explain why Petrenko’s abilities in orchestral accompaniment are particularly gratifying. An online performance with the BPO from 2009 shows him with the pianist Lars Vogt in a lively, zesty performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. This reveals the benefits of special chemistry between an orchestra and the person on the podium. Conducting another orchestra, Italy’s Accademia di Santa Cecilia, in a 2013 excerpt from Wagner’s Rheingold, Petrenko makes a far flatter impression. The fact that the aforementioned excerpt was captured in rehearsal would not explain the somewhat sedentary nature of the reading, just that the ensemble was not as wide-awake and responsive to the maestro’s cues as the BPO has shown itself capable of being.
That said, some more modern repertoire may take some acclimatization for both conductor and orchestra. Petrenko should have lots of time to build up more repertoire in his forthcoming job. Leaders of the BPO, before Rattle at least, have tended to hold onto their jobs unless history or health intervened. The paradigm was the Nazi party member Herbert von Karajan, who ruled the orchestra with an iron fist from 1955 until shortly before his death in 1989. Petrenko’s still-developing artistry would benefit from a prolonged appointment.
Another 2012 performance available online of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” is somewhat blunt and unidiomatic, straining to keep things together rather than really embodying the music. To date, Petrenko has not had a high-profile international recording career, but given the current state of the classical CD industry, this is small wonder. He has managed to produce an appealing series of CDs of neglected works by the Czech composer Josef Suk for the cpo label. He has also recorded a Rachmaninov program for Channel Classics and his first operatic venture, for Oehms, “Palestrina” by the German composer Hans Pfitzner, who admired Hitler but was ultimately loathed in return by the dictator.
This spectre of what happened to Jewish musicians in the BPO’s past has only been confronted recently. In 2006 the orchestra belatedly announced that it would investigate its role during the Nazi era. Some of the documented results, published in 2007’s “The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933-1945” shows them to have been in utter thrall of Hitler, as expected. A 2007 documentary, “The Reichsorchester: The Berlin Philharmonic” was a further reminder of the bad old days. Somewhere the ghost of Szymon Goldberg must be smiling. It was the Polish-born Goldberg (1909–1993), a violinist of transcendent purity and musicality, who served as concertmaster of the BPO from 1929 until he was forced to flee in 1934, when all of the ensemble’s Jewish musicians were trashed despite conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler’s attempts to protect them. Goldberg toured the world with the pianist Lili Kraus, of Hungarian Jewish origin, and wound up in a horrific Japanese prisoner of war camp in Java from 1942 to 1945. Goldberg survived to make many brilliant recordings as violinist and conductor. He would surely look upon the appointment of Petrenko, whose musical skills were not hampered by his family background and his slightly Yiddish-tinged spoken German, as a step up in the sometimes painful history of musical performance in Europe over the past century.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.