The orchestra falls into silence. Kirill Petrenko walks onstage with a towel around his neck and a water bottle in hand. His athletic physique and satisfied smile call to mind a yoga instructor. “Konichwa,” he greets the Bavarian State Orchestra with a bow. The musicians chuckle. But they are soon sitting at the edge of their seats. The conductor's scrupulous attention to detail reveals itself already in the incisive pause between the trumpet calls which open Mahler's Fifth Symphony.
The program has been performed four times, most recently less than week ago in Seoul as part of a tour through Asia. Now Petrenko will make his Japanese debut at Bunka Kaikan, a concert hall in Tokyo that is famous for its acoustics. “Clearer,” he says to the brass players following an extraordinarily precise phrase together with the strings. “Pianissimo and sung,” adds the orchestra's music director, as if coming “out of nowhere.” By the third go, the music attains a fragile, dying quality.
The forty-five-year-old maestro is known as a perfectionist of the old school, who arrives at rehearsal prepared to dig deeper and deeper into the score. He is not content until every dynamic marking has been executed exactly as written and every phrase shaped with dramatic intent. But despite Petrenko’s at times hair-splitting working method, the rehearsals are so thorough that — when the musicians sit down to perform — he takes a step back and allows them to unleash the music with fresh, infectious energy.
Born in Siberia and raised in Austria from the age of eight, Petrenko has risen steadily from a well-kept secret in the German–speaking world to one of today’s most sought conductors. And he has done so without succumbing to the pressure of today’s fast-paced music industry. He has not given an interview to the press for a decade. His first opera DVD — a Dmitri Tcherniakov production of Berg’s Lulu at the Bavarian State Opera — hit the market last September. After being appointed to the Berlin Philharmonic as principal conductor two years ago in one of the most publicized elections in musical history, he calmly decided to begin the position in 2019 — leaving the orchestra without a figurehead on the podium for an entire season — and extended his contract with the Bavarian State Opera until 2021.
Although Petrenko keeps his private life in the shadows, his priorities are clear. The conductor is known to sit at the piano into the early hours of the morning, joining the orchestra players only briefly for drinks or a post-premiere party. “One notices it at the next concert,” says hornist and Bavarian State Orchestra board member Christian Loferer. “The things where he sees potential are immediately worked through so that we play even better.” He admits that although the string section is sometimes “pushed to the limit,” every minute of rehearsal justifies itself in the final performance.
Steinway Artist Igor Levit, who has joined the tour to perform Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations, concurs that “there is no instance when he [works on] a detail that isn’t essential," calling Petrenko one of few musicians who is willing “to go the absolute last millimeter.” And the rehearsal is not just a means to an end. “When we go onstage, we work further,” he says. “That is also how I approach my own concerts — regardless of what venue, what time of year." He compares the working relationship with Petrenko to a friendship that only grows with the years. No concert is exactly the same. “It is not that every day is different, but one gets closer and closer. One trusts each other so much that is natural.”
So thorough and passionate is Petrenko’s music-making that the Bavarian State Orchestra — which spends most of its time in the opera pit — has raised its profile as a concert ensemble. “We are more confident onstage,” says Loferer. He also acknowledges the boost in attention since Petrenko was summoned to the Berlin Philharmonic, which is considered one of the world’s best but also most media-friendly orchestras. “Basically, another conductor would have said: Berlin is calling, I’ll go as quickly as possible. We value him so much as it is, but we appreciate him even more for staying loyal.”
‘I think that music should arise more live and be produced less under safe conditions.’
Stormed by some forty local journalists at a press conference in Tokyo, Petrenko is slightly flushed but remains soft-spoken as he explains that are “many, many reasons” for his decision to decline interview requests. Most of all, he prefers to speak about his work “as little as possible:” “One should be able to say all the more on the podium,” he explains, adding the need for “a certain amount of mystery.” Asked why he is underrepresented on the recording market, Petrenko responds that the live experience “is much more important and more valuable than a recording because, naturally, one can experience the liveliness and spontaneity of music-making much more.” He adds provocatively: “I think that music should arise more live and be produced less under safe conditions.”
Although Petrenko is seated at the same table as the opera stars Klaus Florian Vogt and Matthias Goerne from a guest production of Wagner's Tannhäuser, the questions keep circling back to the maestro. “Do you have a motto?” inquires one woman, standing up eagerly. The answer comes as no surprise: “If one can speak of a motto, then it would be: rehearsal,” says Petrenko. “I try to take time for every rehearsal, every performance, to prepare myself as well as possible and, through an extensive rehearsal process, to bring works to the stage.”
The singers can only praise the conductor for that very ethic. “There are rehearsals that are useless and rehearsals that make a big difference,” says Vogt. “With Petrenko, the rehearsals make a big difference. And the wonderful thing is that the work continues during performances.” The soprano Elena Pankratova goes a step further: “There are no empty discussions. He knows exactly when and with whom he is going to work. This shows a respect toward our profession. He knows how to spare our time and energy. That should be obvious everywhere [in the opera world], but it isn't.”
During the dress rehearsal for Tannhäuser at NHK Hall, Petrenko has to deal with more than musical considerations. The staging by Romeo Castelucci, which casts the Venusberg as a living sculpture of bulging skin and writhing body parts, depends on highly sensitive lighting. The Bavarian State Opera's own engineers are among the approximately four hundred people involved in the Asian tour.
In the second scene, the spotlight on Venus (Pankratova) has to be adjusted so that she is not blinded and can follow the conductor. Petrenko interrupts rehearsal to speak with the hall’s personnel. During the break, Bavarian State Opera General Director Nikolaus Bachler praises Petrenko’s ability to make compromises: “He is such a perfectionist that he has to see through what he has in his mind and his ear. On the other hand, he is a practical person who knows what theater is.”
At the first of three performances, Tokyo's high society gathers with a nearly reverential air. With tickets costing as much as ¥65,000, or $580, the event is comparable to an evening at the Salzburg Festival. And it is hard to imagine as first-class a performance of Wagner's score anywhere besides Bayreuth. During the ethereal textures of the overture, the strings are transparent without losing weight, the brass precise but glowing. Petrenko's hands float like those of a magician, pulling sound of thin air.
Before the reprise of Tannhäuser's song, topless women carrying bows and arrows file onstage like a tribe of angel warriors. Even if the Venusberg at times resembles a pile of raw chicken thighs, Pankratova's legato together with the orchestra is so elegant that one can only marvel at the spectacle onstage. The first men's chorus, "Zu dir wall ich, mein Jesus Christ," which had to be repeated during the dress rehearsal after losing synchrony with the orchestra, is now homogenous and rhythmically tight.
"Ideally one attains so much unity in the preparation with orchestra that the maestro plays only a small role in the final performance," as Petrenko said with a meditative air during the press conference. "He is actually just an intermediary between the music, performers and audience — actually just a bridge."
When the conductor walks onstage with the singers to receive the audience's vigorous applause, he radiates pride, authority, gratitude and modesty in equal measure. In an age where musicians are sometimes celebrated as much for the personas they cultivate as for the art they create, it is reassuring that a maestro like Petrenko — with his unadulterated focus on quality and authenticity — is receiving the international attention he deserves.
Photos: Wilfried Hösl
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