Berlin’s new Jewish conductor met by anti-Semitism in German press
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Berlin’s new Jewish conductor met by anti-Semitism in German press

One website calls Russian-born Kirill Petrenko, philharmonic's first Jewish conductor, 'the tiny gnome, the Jewish caricature'

In this March 6 , 2014 file picture, the Berlin Philharmonic has named Siberian-born conductor Kirill Petrenko as its next chief conductor one of the most prestigious posts in the world of classical music.(Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP,file)
In this March 6 , 2014 file picture, the Berlin Philharmonic has named Siberian-born conductor Kirill Petrenko as its next chief conductor one of the most prestigious posts in the world of classical music.(Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP,file)

BERLIN (JTA) — The newly announced future conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic reportedly will not give interviews anymore after two major German media outlets published comments about him using perceived anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Kirill Petrenko, 43, a Russian-born Jew, was appointed last week to replace Sir Simon Rattle, who is leaving to take over the London Symphony Orchestra, in September 2018. Petrenko is currently the director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

Petrenko won the Berlin job despite only having worked with its musicians on three previous occasions. The orchestra made the announcement June 22 at a news conference at its concert hall in Berlin.

Berlin Philharmonic members select their own conductor. They held several rounds of voting in May but failed to agree. They finally reached a decision in a vote June 21.

Petrenko didn’t appear at the news conference and orchestra spokeswoman Elisabeth Hilsdorf said he does not give interviews.

Violinist Stanley Dodds read a brief statement from him in which he said that “I am aware of the responsibility and high expectations placed in me and I will do everything in my power to be a worthy conductor of this outstanding orchestra.”

In this March 6 , 2014 file picture, Russian music director of the Bavarian State Opera, Kirill Petrenko, speaks during the annual press conference at the State Opera in Munich, Germany. Petrenko will take over the Berlin Philharmonic from Sir Simon Rattle, who is leaving to take over the London Symphony Orchestra. (Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP,file)
In this March 6 , 2014 file picture, Russian music director of the Bavarian State Opera, Kirill Petrenko, speaks during the annual press conference at the State Opera in Munich, Germany. Petrenko will take over the Berlin Philharmonic from Sir Simon Rattle, who is leaving to take over the London Symphony Orchestra. (Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP,file)

Petrenko stopped talking to the media following commentaries by Northern German Radio, or NDR, and Welt Online which used anti-Semitic tropes, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported. The offending material has been removed.

NDR’s Sabine Lange, writing about Petrenko and a German-born contender for the position, described the latter — Christian Thielemann — as a world-renowned expert in the German sound and Petrenko as a mythical, dwarflike figure from Wagner’s operas, “the tiny gnome, the Jewish caricature.”

The Welt Online commentator said that while Petrenko and Thielemann were otherwise comparable, it was “a relief to many” that Petrenko enjoys good interpersonal relations, “as at least one of the female opera singers at this year’s Bayreuth [Wagner] Festival can attest.”

In response, readers noted the anti-Semitic stereotypes of overly competitive and oversexed Jews, and the articles were edited or removed, the Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten, or German Economic News online, reported.

Both reports were “bursting with anti-Semitic hatred,” one reader wrote to NDR, adding, “This is now apparently OK in Germany again.”

An NDR editor apologized for any impressions of anti-Semitic stereotypes, and insisted that Lange wanted to pick up on Wagnerian operatic themes, given that Petrenko and Thielemann would be meeting during the Bayreuth Wagner festival.

In its commentary, Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten said the incident showed that ‘anti-Semitic stereotypes cannot be eradicated by decades of reflection on the crimes of National Socialism’

The statement “is an insult to our intelligence,” one reader said. “It’s just unbelievable that you could not have been aware [of the anti-Semitic stereotypes].”

NDR later retracted the statement and replaced it with another, from its director of cultural programming, Barbara Mirow, saying that the editorial staff had failed in its review of the submitted commentary, should never have published it and would be more careful in the future.

In its commentary, Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten said the incident showed that “anti-Semitic stereotypes cannot be eradicated by decades of reflection on the crimes of National Socialism.”

The paper added that the NDR comments “don’t come from a rabid anti-Semite, trained by preachers of hate from the Arab world. The commentary comes from the supposedly enlightened, bourgeois milieu of northern Germany.”

Petrenko will be the orchestra’s first Jewish conductor, though there are several Jewish conductors of other orchestras in the German capital, including Daniel Barenboim, originally of Argentina, who conducts the Berlin State Opera.

The Berlin Philharmonic has had only three chief conductors in six decades — Herbert von Karajan from 1954-89, followed by Claudio Abbado and then Rattle, who arrived in 2002.

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006 (Wikipedia)
Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006 (Wikipedia)

Petrenko was born into a musical family — violinist father, musicologist mother — in 1972 in the city of Omsk in Russia. He first played in public with the symphony orchestra there as an 11-year-old pianist. The family immigrated to Austria in 1990, where he studied conducting at the University of Music in Vienna.

He is currently general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and led Berlin’s Comic Opera from 2002 to 2007. He won notice as a rising star with a well-received 2001 performance of Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” at the Meiningen Theater in Germany. His resume includes work at major opera venues including the Vienna State Opera, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Bayreuth Festival and Covent Garden in London and with many of the world’s major symphony orchestras.

Orchestra representatives said that Petrenko is bound by his current contract with the State Opera in Munich until 2018 and that negotiations would begin about his exact start date. The length of his contract was also left open.

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