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
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.”