In 2020, Kirill Petrenko got his dream job: chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. In the last 70 years, only three others have held that position. He would lead one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.
Then COVID-19 arrived.
In many places, only “essential” businesses stayed open during the pandemic. But what counts as “essential”? People obviously need food, clothing, and medicine to survive. But what about music? In Berlin, concert halls closed.
“We all were very destroyed because at a certain point we thought no one needs us anymore,” says Petrenko.
Music soon returned—but without a live audience. A chamber-sized orchestra (fewer than 50 musicians) played an empty concert hall. Listeners tuned in via livestream.
In May 2022, the Berlin Philharmonic returned to a full-sized orchestra—and full-sized audience. People still needed music after all.
“It’s not just music-making,” says Petrenko. “It’s music-making in front of someone . . . to change someone who is in this room right now. This is what was missing.”
You’ve probably seen a conductor on stage, waving a baton while the orchestra plays. The conductor keeps the entire band in time. But that’s just the beginning.
Conducting is an art form. Many of history’s greatest composers—such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven—lived before the invention of recorded music. Their work survives through written music, and through the work of orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic. Every performance adds something new. Written music may offer guidance about mood and volume (called dynamics), but much remains open to interpretation. The conductor guides that interpretation.
Orchestras also develop their own distinct sounds. Conductors can shape that sound over time, in a way that lives on beyond themselves. The Berlin Philharmonic is known for a resonant and pristine tone.
Petrenko wants to combine woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments to create a “big, transparent, and light” sound. His orchestra will glean influences from German traditions. He also draws inspiration from his teenage home of Austria, where his family moved after leaving the Soviet Union in 1972.
“Some natural sounds just come out of this orchestra,” says Petrenko. “I would like to have, so to say, my stamp on it.”
It will take Petrenko and his orchestra five or six years to develop the sound he wants.
When artists create and preserve great music, they use and dwell in God’s creation well. Their work reminds us, the creatures given souls by God, that we need more than life’s bare essentials. We also need reminders of God’s beauty, majesty, and glory.
Why? Like all good stewardship of creation, great music requires patience and cultivation, and it points us to God’s beauty.