Vasily Petrenko

by Sarah Quigley / 02 August, 2011
Brilliant young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko is renowned for his passion for Shostakovich’s symphonies.
One glimpse of Vasily Petrenko’s schedule and I wonder how the Russian conductor fits in a good night’s sleep, let alone phone interviews. He is chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Britain’s National Youth Orchestra, newly appointed director of the Oslo Philharmonic and in demand as a guest conductor all over the world – including, during the next fortnight, New Zealand.

Emails fly between managers and publicists. Days pass and I wait hopefully, reading Petrenko’s reviews. Is he a “firebrand” or more like “an innocent teenager”? On one thing the critics are unanimous. His talent. He’s one of this century’s most brilliant young conductors.

Good things come to those who wait. At last I’m sent a time and a number. I dial an American mobile and hear Petrenko’s confident, friendly, unmistakably Russian voice. It’s midday in Cincinnati, where he’s rehearsing for Cincinnati Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin. After this, it’s off to Los Angeles for two Hollywood Bowl concerts. “And then on to New Zealand,” he enthuses. “I’ve heard great things about the country. I’m looking forward to it.”

He’ll lead the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on their Leningrad tour, with concerts in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch. The programme features two large-scale, demanding Russian works: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 4, with soloist Michael Houstoun, and Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, aka the Leningrad Symphony. Petrenko, born and educated in the former Leningrad (now St Petersburg), seems an ideal – almost a symbolic – choice of conductor. Coincidentally, he recently turned 35: the same age Shostakovich was when composing the Leningrad Symphony in 1941, in a city besieged by the Germans.

Petrenko is renowned for his knowledge of and passion for Shostakovich’s music. Does he have a favourite symphony? “I love them all,” he says simply. “All are jewels.” One long-term project is recording an ongoing Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Liverpool Philharmonic, for Naxos. “Together, [the works] tell the history of an artist. Each one is a cornerstone in Shostakovich’s autobiography.”

He can’t remember how many times he’s conducted the Leningrad. “Quite a few! But not as often as Swan Lake, which I’ve probably done 150 times,” he laughs. He last conducted the Leningrad a couple of years ago, meaning he’ll come to the work in New Zealand with “freshness”, as well as familiarity. I suggest this must be the ideal combination for a good performance. “We’ll see!” He laughs again.

Petrenko’s quick, wry sense of humour is surely one reason for his enormous popularity in England. During his five years in Liverpool, he’s been credited with ushering in a new golden age for the Philharmonic. He’s also been awarded an honorary doctorate by the city’s university, and made an “Honorary Scouser” by its mayor.

It seems odd, with his engaging manner and reputation for connecting with audiences and orchestras alike, that he’s been described as “fiery”. Petrenko himself doesn’t have an answer for this one. “Somewhere the rumour may have started that I’m tough with orchestras,” he muses. “But in fact in all my five years [in Liverpool] only one person left the orchestra. And he retired.”

Most of us experience the difficult “first day on a job” once or twice in a lifetime. Petrenko faces it every few weeks. When he meets the NZSO, he has just a few days to rehearse with them before the Wellington concert. “Those are the rules of the game,” he says matter-of-factly. “Sometimes I have only one rehearsal before a performance.”

He’s as experienced as he is talented, having gained his first professional position (at the St Petersburg State Opera and Ballet Theatre) when he was just 18. Does he ever feel nervous, faced with a hundred unknown musicians? “More curious. I’m always eager to discover what the orchestra’s like.” Yet he admits that sometimes he encounters resistance from established musicians. “Like, ‘Who is this stupid young guy?’” he quips.

I suspect it doesn’t take long for him to overcome this. Unlike the maestros of earlier days – those austere, revered men who “sat alone in their dressing rooms” – his approach is one of equality, and his primary aim is to connect. “You can’t be a diva these days. My relatively young generation of conductors are mostly open people. We’re happy to communicate.”

Like Shostakovich, Petrenko’s an avid football fan. In Liverpool, he plays once a week; when on tour, he often drums up a team. He’s already lined up a game in Sydney, his destination after Christchurch. A soloist in Brahms’s Double Concerto, it turns out, is also a keen footballer.

It seems appropriate that, once his Leningrad tours in the Southern Hemisphere are over, Petrenko is returning to Russia. He’s going to spend some family time in St Petersburg with his parents, wife and son. “My first 10 days off,” he admits, albeit cheerfully, “in two years.”

NZSO LENINGRAD, conduced by Vasily Petrenko, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, August 5; Auckland Town Hall, August 6; CBS Canterbury Arena, Christchurch, August 11.

Sarah Quigley is author of the novel The Conductor, about the composition and first performance of the Leningrad Symphony.

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