Historic gate will be Berlin Philharmonic’s backdrop

New conductor Kirill Petrenko will front free open-air concert – for one night only

Ask Berlin visitors to name the city's most important cultural landmark and many will say the Brandenburg Gate. Ask Berliners to name their most important cultural landmark and many will say the Berlin Philharmonic.

On Saturday evening, for one night only, the historic gate will be the orchestra’s backdrop as the 30,000 people gather for a free concert to welcome the Berlin Phil’s new chief conductor.

Russian-born Kirill Petrenko was chosen last year by the self-managing orchestra and, after his premiere on Friday evening before the orchestra's discerning subscribers, this evening's open-air concert is a chance for Berliners to give their blessing to their beloved orchestra and its new boss.

On the menu: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, including its rousing "Ode to Joy" chorus adopted by the European Union as its anthem.


A week before Germany’s far-right is expected to make big regional election gains, it’s a timely intervention with Beethoven’s soaring melody set to poet Friedrich Schiller’s words on the joy and fragility of freedom.

For Petrenko, Beethoven’s Ninth “contains everything that defines us as humanity in positive and in negative sense. For me it is very important for me to start with this work,” he said.


The concert is a nod to Beethoven’s 250th birthday next year and, as Berlin gears up to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of its hated wall, it’s a nod to Leonard Bernstein’s legendary performance of the symphony in December 1989.

For Berliners their philharmonic orchestra, considered by many the world’s best, is much more than a collection of musicians.

In a country devastated by military conflict, and capital still visibly marked by wars both hot and cold, many here have learned instead to prize the intangible beauty of music and the arts. And in Berlin, with three opera houses and eight orchestras, classical music is never far away from the locals.

"We thought a lot about how we can make him available to the broad mass of people," said Andrea Zietzschmann, general manager of the Berlin Philharmonic. "For Kirill it's important to bring classical music out into the world and we're delighted we can realise it in this way."

Petrenko was born into a musical household in Omsk, Siberia in 1972 with a violinist father and musicologist mother. He studied piano as a youth, made his public debut as a pianist at age 11 and studied music in Austria. He rose quickly after his conducting debut in 1995, heading Wagner's complete Ring Cycle annually at the Bayreuth Festival in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Von Karajan

His appointment is a departure for the orchestra with a history of strong – often dictatorial – personalities such as Herbert von Karajan that, critics say, often overshadowed the music.

Petrenko has big shoes to fill – those of Sir Simon Rattle – and many expect a more gentle, music-focused chief conductor who does next to no interviews, in the tradition of the late Claudio Abaddo.

The concert begins at 7.15pm Irish time and will be streamed online worldwide on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall platform.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin