Kirill Petrenko, general music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, has been called “the most unknown famous conductor in the world” (Germany’s Die Welt). The Russian-born maestro, who makes his Carnegie Hall debut March 28, is a dark horse as far as New York audiences are concerned: To date, his only local appearances have been at the Metropolitan Opera, where he debuted in 2003 and went on to lead critically acclaimed productions of Ariadne auf Naxos in 2005 and 2010, followed by Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina in 2012. After taking over his current post in Munich and conducting a range of selections from the opera repertoire, at age 43 he gained even greater recognition when the musicians of the self-governing Berliner Philharmoniker elected him to succeed Sir Simon Rattle as their chief conductor in fall 2019.
No one seemed more surprised by the appointment than Petrenko—an intense, soft-spoken man who has spent most of his time working in German opera houses since immigrating to Austria from the former Soviet Union with his parents in 1990. (Petrenko rarely does interviews, explaining that “I prefer to speak through my work on the podium.”) After some time in Vienna and Meiningen, he was named general music director of Berlin’s renowned Komische Oper in 2002. The following year, he made his debut with the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, the company that he has led since 2013 with characteristically low-key distinction.
Fittingly, both sides of his musical persona will be on display in his back-to-back Carnegie Hall performances with the Bayerische Staatsoper and its excellent house orchestra, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester: a program of symphonic works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, followed by a concert version of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.
Despite his natural affinity for Russian music, Petrenko is well versed in the Germanic repertoire that is the bread and butter of both the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Asked at a press conference which of his predecessors he felt closest to, he hesitated momentarily before naming Hans von Bülow, who put both the Munich and Berlin orchestras on the map in the late 1800s. Like Bülow, Petrenko is equally at home in the concert hall and opera house. Both men made their way to Berlin by way of Meiningen and Munich. And both are prominently associated with Wagner: Bülow conducted the premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger in Munich, while Petrenko has led notable Ring cycles in Meiningen, Munich, and Bayreuth, as well as a new production of Die Meistersinger (2016) and Tannhäuser (2017) at the Bayerische Staatsoper.
Yet the differences between the two conductors are equally conspicuous. Bülow was an autocrat of the podium known for his volcanic temper and withering sarcasm. Petrenko, by contrast, is self-effacing and collaborative by nature. “I know hardly any conductors who dive in like he does,” says Christian Loferer, a horn player in the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and a member of its steering committee. At the same time, Petrenko is no less exacting than Bülow. By all accounts, he has taken to heart the advice the German maestro offered to a promising young assistant named Richard Strauss: “You must have the score in your head and not your head in the score.”
Unlike Bülow, Petrenko doesn’t pride himself on conducting from memory, but orchestra members say he has a precise sound-image in his ear and focuses relentlessly on achieving it. “I work on it a lot at home,” he tells clarinetist Alexander Bader in a conversation available on the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall website. “When I study a musical score, I go through it page by page, and … try to imagine the entire piece in my mind.” Such painstaking preparation is essential, he says, because “if you don’t have your own point of view about the sound, as a conductor you will flounder. I find that a piece of music should have its own sound color—my sound color. That sound should be different with every conductor.”
Petrenko will be the first Jewish chief conductor in the Philharmoniker’s 136-year history, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the musical world at a time when the orchestra is belatedly seeking to publicize and make amends for its historical links with the Nazis.
Unlike Vasily Petrenko (no relation), whose extensive discography with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is heavily skewed toward Russian music, Kirill Petrenko has taken pains to avoid being pigeonholed as a Russian specialist. The breadth of his operatic and symphonic repertoire—which ranges from the Viennese classics to Janáček and Berg—is only hinted at in the seven recordings he has made so far, most recently John Adams’s Whitman oratorio The Wound-Dresser with the Philharmoniker and a DVD of Berg’s Lulu with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester.
Petrenko and the Berliners are still at the get-acquainted stage: He has conducted them only four times since 2006. But Loferer and his colleagues in the Bayerisches Staatsorchester speak from experience. “What he brings to the table is extraordinary,” Loferer says. “He always goes the extra mile. I have never worked so intensively in my 12 years of professional life than with Petrenko. You savor every minute of it—even very long dress rehearsals. You reach the limits of what’s possible.”
The antithesis of the modern jet-setting maestro, Petrenko prefers to live and work in close quarters with the musicians he leads. “It’s not really the rehearsal time, but rather knowing people,” he tells Bader. “When you work with people whom you know and who have known you for a number of years, you know better what you can try to get done on which day and at which time.”
As that comment suggests, Petrenko leads a disciplined, well-organized life, both onstage and off. He methodically plans what he wants to accomplish in rehearsals minute by minute, wastes few words, and rarely uses less than the contractually allotted time. Although rehearsals invariably exhaust him, he admits to being something of a workaholic. When he tells Bader, “If I take a lot of holidays, I get withdrawal symptoms,” it’s clearly not meant as a joke.
The 46-year-old maestro is similarly reticent about his private life, which he plainly prefers to keep private, though that may change after he settles into his higher-profile job in Berlin. But for the time being, he seems content to be living and breathing music, even at the cost of leading a somewhat rootless existence. “Finding a geographic home for me is difficult,” he says. “It feels very dramatic, but I feel at home in the music.”