The last we heard from the Berlin Philharmonic was that they were unable to choose a new chief conductor to succeed Simon Rattle in 2018. But yesterday out of the blue they announced that the relatively unknown conductor Kirill Petrenko has got the top musical job in the world at the age of 43. In the 133 year history of the orchestra Petrenko is the first musical director to be Russian-born and a Jew.
Much has been written in the press over the last 24 hours but the reality is nobody knows much about him, even his Wikipedia page has huge gaps. The German paper Die Welt has described him as "the most unknown famous conductor in the world".
Kirill Petrenko is Russian born but his family emigrated to Austria where he grew up. He was a virtuoso pianist by the age of 11. His father played the violin in the Vovarlberg Symphony Orchestra where Petrenko made his conducting debut in 1995. To date his conducting repertoire has been more operatic and he is currently chief conductor of the Bavarian State Opera. His symphonic repertoire is small and he has made very few recordings furthermore outside of Austria/Germany he is relatively unknown.
This is not an easy orchestra to take on: firstly the players all vote for their new chief, most of them are world class soloists in their own right and all are very opinionated. They have fallen out with many of their past music directors: Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado and more recently Simon Rattle who was subject to a hostile media campaign in the press fuelled by some members of the orchestra.
It would seem that the orchestra have put the music first. In the clip below you can see Petrenko conducting the Berlin Philharmonic playing some Scriabin, his conducting has an unbelievable and exciting intensity. In 2013 he conducted Wagner's Ring Cycle on four consecutive nights - no mean feat - the production was absolutely slated and the producer booed. However when Petrenko finally took to the stage for his bow, the booing changed to cheering and the conductor was the hero.
This could be very exciting times and a smart move for the Berlin Philharmonic, with no media profile, Petrenko is musically impeccable and clearly the real deal. although it won't be an easy ride for him.
Watch Kirill Petrenko conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker playing an extract of the Poeme de l'extase by Alexander Scriabin on YouTube