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


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.”

Steep learning curve
He obviously stood out from the crowd and, in 1994, was appointed resident conductor at the Mikhailovsky Theatre.

“At 18 or 19 you learn a lot in the theatre. First of all you lose your romantic view. You come to understand that it’s work, quite often greedy work. You learn how to live with all the different people in the environment, and sometimes you spend 10 or 11 hours a day there. How should you behave? You learn who you need to push, who you don’t, who you need to listen to and who you need to close your ears to. It’s a big school of life.

“And you learn repertoire. I’ve conducted nearly 40 or 50 operas and ballets. To learn that amount of music in a quick time is very important. I remember once I had a call from the theatre when I was assistant on a production of Gounod’s Faust. The production had just started rehearsals, and I was told that at 10am the next morning I would conduct an orchestra rehearsal. I didn’t know a note. I was expecting to be working with some of the singers much later. I asked could I have a score. They said, no, the librarian is gone. Tomorrow at a quarter to 10 you will have the music.

“It was very difficult. At the first orchestral rehearsal they don’t know the tempo, the articulation, and the conductor who was supposed to be doing it had it all in his mind. He hadn’t put any markings in the score. It was all guesswork for me. Do I beat in four or in two? What is the tempo?”

When I point out that you hear of instrumentalists or singers sight-reading, but not usually conductors, he quips: “There are quite a few masters nowadays, and if you are not a conductor you would never think that they are sight-reading.”

Petrenko is nothing if not outspoken, and his remarks about women conductors to the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten caused a firestorm. In person, his outspokenness and self-confidence come across as disarmingly matter-of-fact.

“If you can get through the theatre experience,” he told me, “nothing scares you, especially after working with Russian soloists. Now it’s a bit different. The new generation looks to the West, and they’re more disciplined. Back then, you could expect any fermata, any stop at any moment, because she just liked how this note sounds. You needed to be able to stop the orchestra in a very logical way, otherwise it could all go terribly wrong. Or, a lot of singers were not able to move in the tempo of the music; when they moved on stage they would change the tempo of the music.”

Making the accidents invisible
The rough and tumble of the theatre “gives you the ability to be very, very flexible, and to know how to hide the accidents which can happen, and make them invisible. The next stage is how to avoid the accidents, how to predict them. Because that’s the ultimate goal. When you’re able to predict, and you feel that the s*** can happen soon, you can avoid it by changing something just before it. That’s mastery.”

He describes himself as a highly self-critical person, “very perfectionist in how I live my life. Quite often I think that was okay, a good concert, not something amazing. But the orchestra and audience they go crazy, calling it the best ever.

“It’s the orchestra that takes the main role. We’re just waving our hands without making any sound. They play the music, and the audience takes a massive role, too.

“Human nature is to work less and earn more. Quite often, especially with very well-established orchestras, the thing they expect from a conductor is that they finish rehearsals early. It’s a way to nowhere. It’s a way to not improve, to not go forward, to not progress. It’s stagnation.”

He talks with great satisfaction about his work in Liverpool, about shaping what is now “a very fine band” where nearly all the technical aspects are sorted. He feels a great sense of anticipation for Oslo.

“I see massive potential. I see that the work has to be done. I see ambitions in the organisation, which is the most important [thing]. Here it will be faster. In general, the quality of the musical instruments is higher than in the UK; it’s a wealthier country. The orchestra at the moment here in Oslo is in much better shape than when I began in Liverpool.”

His long-term ambition? “To be number one. I went to a school where if you were second you were a loser.”

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in Sibelius’s Finlandia, Grieg’s Piano Concerto (with Christian Ihle Hadland) and Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony (Winter Dreams) at the NCH tonight, 01-417 0000,