Conductors? ‘We’re just waving our hands’
In person, outspoken Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko has a self-confidence that comes across as disarmingly matter-of-fact
Vasily Petrenko: ‘Nothing scares you after working with Russian soloists. Now it’s different. The new generation looks to the West, and they’re more disciplined.’ Photograph: Bo Mathisen
Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko was just 30 when he became principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. His success with the orchestra can be measured in critical acclaim (Gramophone, Classic FM and Classical Brit awards), increased attendances (up 17 per cent) and a contract extension that is now open-ended.
He has also taken up posts with other orchestras, as principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, principal guest conductor of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg, and, beginning this season, as chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he appears at the National Concert Hall this evening.
Petrenko was born in 1976. He began his musical studies in Soviet-era Leningrad and completed them in post-Soviet St Petersburg. Did the collapse of the Soviet Union have any negative impact on his education? “No. It actually had a good impact. At the time I was studying, just after the collapse, the educational system was still as good as in the Soviet time. I got all the best education that Soviet conductors got. But the gates were open. As a post-Soviet-era product, I’ve been able to go west and absorb the western culture as well.
‘The dinosaur teachers died’
“Now it is different. Over the years most of the dinosaur teachers simply died, and people aren’t so much interested any more in the profession of musician. As a musician you earn very little. Well-established families prefer their children to be lawyers, financiers. There was a poll taken among the under-20s about what they wanted to be, and 67 per cent said a bureaucrat.”
He feels that education for conductors in Russia has gone backwards, though it could advance if people such as Mariss Jansons, Valery Gergiev or Yuri Temirkanov were to turn their attention to teaching young conductors.
The key factor in his own education, he says, was that every week he got at least an hour with a real orchestra – on top of the twice-weekly class sessions with two pianos substituting for the orchestra. “Sometimes students weren’t ready for the orchestra, or didn’t book their hours, and I took up their slots.”
The special training orchestra, he points out, rehearses 300 days a year and gives very few concerts. “It’s very important to work with real people, especially for a young conductor, working with people most of whom are twice as old as you. You need to convince them that the way you feel about the music is the right way. And of course some of them have seen all the great conductors, so it’s not easy.”