Inaugural concert: Kirill Petrenko conducts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

23 Aug 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Kirill Petrenko

Marlis Petersen, Elisabeth Kulman, Benjamin Bruns, Kwangchul Youn, Rundfunkchor Berlin

  • Alban Berg
    Lulu Suite (33 min.)

    Marlis Petersen soprano

  • free

    Ludwig van Beethoven
    Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125 with Final Chorus “Ode to Joy” (72 min.)

    Marlis Petersen soprano, Elisabeth Kulman mezzo-soprano, Benjamin Bruns tenor, Kwangchul Youn bass, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars chorus master

  • free

    Kirill Petrenko in conversation with Ludwig Quandt (18 min.)

  • free

    Berg and Beethoven: an introduction by Malte Krasting (10 min.)

Finally the time has come! For the first time, Kirill Petrenko will stand before the Berliner Philharmoniker as their new chief conductor. For his inaugural concert, he has chosen one of the greatest symphonic masterpieces of the 19th century: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a work in which almost out of nothing, from a simple fifth, the formidable musical tension Beethoven creates finds redemption and exaltation in the anthemic, visionary choral finale “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” (Joy, thou beauteous godly lightning).

The symphony has great symbolic power in a number of ways: on the one hand, the magnificent final movement with its closing chorus of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” could hardly better express the delight with which Petrenko and the Philharmoniker start off on their future together; on the other, the Ninth also conveys an important message: a clear commitment to humanity, to the equality of all mankind.

In addition, the performance of the symphony is the first in a series of Beethoven concerts this season to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2020. At the same time, it pays musical homage to previous chief conductors of the Berliner Philharmoniker: from Hans von Bülow, who once presented the work twice in a row in one concert, to Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who included the symphony among other works for the opening of the newly built Philharmonie in 1963, and finally to Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle, each of them delighted audiences with his own, inimitable interpretation of the Ninth Symphony.

The season opening concert also sees the first appearance by soprano Marlis Petersen as the 2019/20 Artist in Residence. The singer has already worked with Kirill Petrenko on several occasions. In the summer of 2019, she will make her role debut as Salome in the eponymous opera by Richard Strauss under his direction at the Bayerische Staatsoper. Audiences can see her here in Berlin in two very contrasting works: she sings the soprano solo in Beethoven’s Ninth and the vocal part in Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from the opera Lulu which are to be heard at the beginning of the season-opening concert. The role of Lulu gave Marlis Petersen her international breakthrough. In the Symphonic Pieces, which the composer published in 1934 to spark interest in his new opera Lulu among audiences, conductors and directors, she again has the opportunity to present some facets of her most famous role.

Outlook for the Future: Two Late Works

Music by Alban Berg and Ludwig van Beethoven

To open the new season the Berliner Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko have programmed two works dating from the late periods of their respective composers, two works which are a summing up, so to speak – not in the sense of striking a balance, but rather an overview of everything that was achieved and created in music so far, and a look into a future that would be shaped by others. Thus, just as Alban Berg made use of an entire compendium of musical forms and composition techniques in his Lulu to bring one of the burning topics of his day to the stage, Ludwig van Beethoven also extended the boundaries of symphonic music in order to be able to address humanity in a different dimension than before. As a result, he provided the genre of the symphony with a perspective that subsequent generations have adopted in various ways, whether in Gustav Mahler’s combining of the human voice with instrumental forces or Richard Wagner’s concept of the music drama.

Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu

Berg’s interest in the subject of Lulu dates back to his attendance at the Viennese premiere of Frank Wedekind’s drama Pandora’s Boxin 1905. Since then, the composer had been reflecting on the material. When the public expected a second opera from him after the sensational success of his Wozzeck (1925), Berg turned to Wedekind. He condensed the playwright’s two Lulu dramas Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Boxinto an opera libretto and began work on the composition in 1927. Berg had completed the basic framework of the opera when blood poisoning prematurely ended his life. All that remained was the orchestration of the third act: it existed only as a short score, that is, a kind of piano reduction, with notes on orchestration – with two exceptions. These were the result of a music publishing strategy with which Berg intended, as one said at the time, to “advertise” or make “propaganda” for his new opera: a selection of excerpts which could be performed in the concert hall in advance to familiarize the public with music from the opera. The five Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu, originally called simply the Lulu-Suite, contain three excerpts from the second act as well as two passages from the third.

The Rondo, the longest movement, is a compilation of the orchestral sections from the scene between Lulu and Alwa in the second act, culminating with Alwa’s “hymn” to his father’s wife. The Ostinato is taken from the central point of the opera, where it accompanies a silent film scene showing Lulu’s arrest and her escape from prison. The piece is structured as a palindrome and runs backwards note-for-note from the middle like a mirror image, although the phrases heard earlier, such as the Lulu theme, cannot be recognized until the reflection (at the narrative level, during Lulu’s escape).

In Lulu’s Song, she sings about herself, at the “tempo of a pulse beat”: “I have not asked in my life to appear in another colour than the one which I am known to have. Nor has any man in my life been led to look on me as other than what I am.” She changes depending on who is looking at her, is open to all projections. The Variations serve as an interlude in the third act. Their theme “is the lute song Confession of Frank Wedekind, which is first presented in a pompously thundering orchestration, only to be gradually stripped of its ‘frills’ later. With this instrumental reduction, Berg traces the transition from the false splendour of the Paris scene to the real misery in the London attic” (Thomas Ertelt). The closing Adagio is also the conclusion of the opera; it contains the twelve-note chord described as a “death shriek” and the last words of Countess Geschwitz. According to a footnote in the score, “These closing words should also be sung by the singer of Lulu’s Song if possible.” The result is a fascinating dissociation, a separation of the performer and the character depicted: the singer turns out to be not the personification of Lulu, but the commentator of her fate.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

Ludwig van Beethoven worked on his last symphony as long as Berg on his last work: the initial preliminary studies, sketches and notes date back twelve years, and he devoted himself specifically to the work for seven years. The evolution of the tone and key of the D minor Symphony may have been similar to that of the C minor Fifth, but the journey from darkness to light had become more arduous, and its success demanded unforeseen effort and resources. Beethoven was less concerned with the contrast of ideal and reality than a challenge to the circumstances, an offensive against the reactionary zeitgeist. His guiding principle was movement, not standstill: “In the world of art, as in the whole of creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives” (letter to Archduke Rudolf, 29 July 1819).

In a depiction of the struggle for freedom, peace and joy – which one could understand as the triad of Beethoven’s principal works Fidelio, the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony – conquering evil must precede the triumph of good; joy must grow out of joylessness. The first three movements thus serve as examples of conditions under which humanity cannot thrive. Oppression and conflict prevail in the powerful first movement: “One recalls the eventfulness of all the entrances of recapitulations in Beethoven’s symphonies. The happy ending, the ‘rescue’ always came at this turning point in the earlier works; here it serves to shatter the mood” (Harry Goldschmidt). The second movement is no longer called a scherzo, since – as a colossus 954 bars in length – it exceeds the limits of the movement type which evolved from the courtly minuet to the point of bursting. Rather than “banter”, as a contemporary critic called it, it is a terrifying dystopia, painstakingly softened with sprinklings of Arcadia. The third movement is essentially two distinct sections combined: an Adagio molto e cantabile with “the character of a prayer and the form of a song” followed by an Andante moderato, which prolongs a mood in static harmony without a developmental impulse. The fanfares that attack this Adagio in the coda foreshadow the radical nature of the necessary upheaval.

Whether external threat or inner lethargy, everything heard up to now must be overcome. First of all, it is the vision of a happier future, as composer Aribert Reimann interprets it: “After all the political chaos and horror of the time, which Beethoven also experienced himself, this work is ultimately an appeal, a yearning for brotherhood, for joy and exultation, for the utopia of world peace, for a world without war and destruction.” But even in this utopia there is ambivalence, for the happiness is defined at the expense of defeated adversaries, who are excluded from the celebration. In Schiller’s Ode to Joythe unfortunate men who have found neither wife nor friend are urged to leave and not trouble the joyful ones with their sadness. Beethoven intensifies the antagonism by alluding to the threat from afar with Janissary music, which recalls the Turkish siege of Vienna and the struggle against the Ottoman Empire, thus suggesting a group of others who do not belong there. Are the limits of humanity revealed here? Or an awareness of the need for conflicting forces, for the perpetual balancing of right and wrong? “‘The moral law within us and the starry sky above us’ Kant!!!”, Beethoven freely quoted the Königsberg philosopher in 1820, thus making it clear: the responsibility always lies with the individual. That is the obligation that no one can walk away from, even in the strongest society.

Malte Krasting

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Kirill Petrenko, the new chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, was born in the Siberian city of Omsk in 1972. At the age of 18, he moved with his family to Vorarlberg in Austria. Following his training as a conductor at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, he worked from 1997 as an assistant and conductor at the city’s Volksoper; afterwards he was music director at the Meiningen Theater from 1999 to 2002. In 2001, he first attracted international attention when he conducted Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in the production of Christine Mielitz with designs by Alfred Hrdlicka. From 2002 to 2007, Kirill Petrenko was general music director of the Komische Oper Berlin. He has also appeared at the state opera houses in Munich and Vienna, the Semperoper Dresden, the Royal Opera House in London, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Opéra Bastille in Paris, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Salzburg Festival. From 2013 to 2015, he conducted a new production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festival. In the autumn of 2013, Kirill Petrenko took up his post as general music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper, which he will hold until the end of the 2019/2020 season. On the concert stage, he has conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin and Dresden, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Kirill Petrenko made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2006 with compositions by Bartók and Rachmaninov. In 2015, the orchestra elected him its future chief conductor. Most recently, he appeared with the Philharmoniker in March 2019 conducting works by Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky.

After studying at the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart and under Sylvia Geszty, Marlis Petersen began her career as an opera singer at the Städtische Bühnen Nürnberg in 1994. From 1998 to 2003, the soprano was a member of the ensemble at Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf. She made her debut at the Wiener Staasoper in the role of Alban Berg’s Lulu. Marlis Petersen also sang this central role of her repertoire in Peter Konwitschny’s highly acclaimed Hamburg production, at Chicago Lyric Opera and in a new production in Athens. Other key roles include Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro), Pamina (The Magic Flute), Elettra (Idomeneo), Violetta (La traviata), Thaïs (Thaïs) and Manon (Manon Lescaut). She also sang the title role in Aribert Reimann’s opera Medea with great success at the premiere at the Wiener Staatsoper (2010). Marlis Petersen is a regular guest at major venues such as the Opéra de Paris, the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the state opera houses in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Vienna, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. She also appears at major concert halls and has worked with conductors such as Christoph Eschenbach, Daniel Harding, Zubin Mehta, Antonio Pappano and Kirill Petrenko. Her keen involvement in historical performance practice also brought her into contact with specialists such as René Jacobs, Ton Koopman, Trevor Pinnock and Helmuth Rilling. In the 2019/2020 season, Marlis Petersen will appear as the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Artist in Residence in numerous orchestral and chamber concerts including in the series Vocal in a song recital entitled “Anderswelt” (Otherworld) in the middle of September 2019. Before this, she will accompany the orchestra on tour to Salzburg, Lucerne and Bucharest. The singer, who won an award at the first Austrian music theatre awards in 2013, was named “Singer of the Year” in 2015 by the magazine Opernwelt for the third time. In Philharmoniker concerts, Marlis Petersen last appeared in the Original sounds series with the Coro e Orchestra Ghislieri under the direction of Giulio Prandi in a programme which included works by Haydn, Mozart and Pergolesi.

Elisabeth Kulman was born in Burgenland, Austria. Initially, she studied Slavic languages and Finno-Ugristics in Vienna. In 1995, she decided to study singing under Helena Łazarska at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna where she graduated with honours. In the same year, the singer made her debut as Pamina in Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Vienna Volksoper and began a successful career as a soprano. Since her change to mezzo-soprano and alto in 2005, Elisabeth Kulman has performed as Gluck’s Orpheus at the Opéra national de Paris and at the Salzburg Festival; she appeared as Prince Orlofsky (Die Fledermaus), as Mrs. Quickly (Falstaff) as well as Herodias (Salome) at the Wiener Staatsoper, and has appeared as Carmen at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin. Other major roles include Fricka, Erda and Waltraute (The Ring of the Nibelung), Brangäne (Tristan and Isolde), Begbick (Mahagonny) and Marina (Boris Godunov). Since 2010, Elisabeth Kulman has been working as a freelance artist and is a much sought-after soloist in the great music capitals of Vienna, Paris, London, Munich, Berlin, Tokyo, Salzburg and Moscow. She regularly performs with renowned orchestras, working with conductors such as Herbert Blomstedt, Marek Janowski, Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta, Kent Nagano and Kirill Petrenko; she had a particularly close association with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Since 2015, Elisabeth Kulman has concentrated her artistic activities on recitals (together with her accompanist of many years, Eduard Kutrowatz), concerts, and concert performances of operas. She is particularly fond of unconventional projects such as “Mussorgsky Dis-Covered” with jazz quartet and her solo programme “La femme c’est moi”, in which she presents pieces ranging from Carmen to the Beatles. In mid-December 2017, Elisabeth Kulman made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in three concerts of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, conducted by Christian Thielemann.

Benjamin Bruns began his singing career as an alto soloist in the boys’ choir of his home town of Hannover. After training privately for four years with Peter Sefcik, he studied at Hamburg University of Music and Theatre under the Kammersängerin Renate Behle. During his studies, he was offered his first engagement with the Bremen Theater, which enabled him to build up a broad repertoire early on and was soon followed by an ensemble contract with Oper Köln. Via the Saxon State Opera Dresden, his career took him directly to the Wiener Staatsoper, where he still has a residency contract with the house. He makes regular guest appearances at the large opera houses in Dresden, Munich, Vienna and Madrid, and he is also a welcome guest at the Salzburg and Bayreuth Festivals. His repertoire includes roles such as Belmonte (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Tamino (The Magic Flute), Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni), Ferrando (Così fan tutte), Camille de Rosillon (The Merry Widow), Lysander (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) Don Ramiro (La Cenerentola), Boris Grigorievič (Katja Kabanova), Erik (The Flying Dutchman), Loge (Das Rheingold) and the roles of the singer in the two Strauss operas Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier. Benjamin Bruns also enjoys an excellent reputation as an oratorio and lieder singer and as such is also at home in the great concert halls. He is a prize winner of the National Singing Competition in Berlin, the Hamburg Mozart Competition as well as the international singing competition of the Kammeroper Schloss Rheinsberg. Special awards include Theater Bremen’s Kurt Hübner Prize in 2008 and the young artist prize at the Schleswig Holstein Musik Festival in 2009. In concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the singer was first heard in mid-June 2014 as part of the festival at the Kulturforum in an open-air performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina burana; the conductor was Sir Simon Rattle.

Kwangchul Youn received his musical training in his homeland of South Korea, in Sofia and in Berlin. A winner of several competitions, he made his debut in Seoul in 1988. From 1993 to 2004, he was an ensemble member of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin; in 2018 he was awarded the title “Kammersänger”. An internationally sought-after soloist, he has appeared in recent years at all renowned opera houses in Europe and beyond, including at the Vienna and Berlin state opera houses, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Bavarian State Opera Munich, the Semperoper Dresden, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, the Opéra National de Paris, the Lyric Opera Chicago, the Teatro alla Scala and the Teatro Regio in Turin. He has also performed at the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, the BBC Proms, the Dresden Music Festival, the Ludwigsburg Festival, the Ravinia Festival, the Klangbogen Wien and the Beethovenfest Bonn. Kwangchul Youn’s repertoire includes the great bass parts of Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Gounod, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Strauss, and those of Richard Wagner in particular. In addition to his operatic work, he appears regularly as a concert singer with renowned orchestras. In the recent past, Kwangchul Youn was to be seen as Ferrando (Il trovatore) at the Bayerische Staastsoper in Munich, as King Henry (Lohengrin) and Simone Boccanegra at the Wiener Staatsoper, as Sarastro (TheMagic Flute) and Pogner (Die Meistersinger) at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin as well as Gurnemanz (Parsifal) at Hamburg State Opera. In mid-May 2019, he sang the bass part in Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony conducted by Kirill Petrenko at the Festspielhaus in Bregenz. Kwangchoul Youn first performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2002 under the baton of Daniel Barenboim in Mozart’s Requiem; he most recently participated in the orchestra’s Berlin concerts in three performances of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in mid-January 2012; the conductor was Daniel Barenboim.

With around 60 concerts annually and international guest performances, the Rundfunkchor Berlin (Berlin Radio Choir) is one of the world’s foremost choruses. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation and richly nuanced sound have made it the chosen partner of major orchestras and conductors. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards, document its work. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: The “human requiem”, an interactive scenic version of Brahms’s German Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig and a team of Sasha Waltz & Guests, became a milestone, with guest performances in Europe, New York, Hongkong and Australia. For its project »LUTHER dancing with the gods« the choir cooperated with director Robert Wilson in October 2017. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001–2015). With the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in April 2019 in concert performances of Verdi’s Otello conducted by Zubin Mehta.

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