His viewpoint of what a modern conductor can accomplish with a modern orchestra is fascinating--as is his diagnosis of the different strengths and weaknesses of his two orchestras. And his thoughts about increasing audience interest.
Vasily Petrenko: "We need to break the barrier between orchestra and audience"
He's the young Russian who transformed the sound of the Liverpool Philharmonic, becoming an 'Honorary Scouser' in the process. Now he hopes to do the same with Oslo's leading orchestra. Ivan Hewett meets Vasily Petrenko
It’s well-known that being a top-rank conductor requires more than just musical gifts. Leadership, nerves of steel, an easy way with audiences and an ability to glad-hand sponsors without glazing over are all required. Another vital skill, less often remarked upon, is what one might call cultural flexibility. Unlike theatre directors, who are usually confined to the Anglophone world, conductors can end up working anywhere.
Vasily Petrenko, the straw-haired, perennially youthful Russian conductor who’s become one of the hottest properties on the conducting circuit, is having to exercise that skill for the second time. The first time was back in 2006 when he moved from Russia to become Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. In Russia he had to battle against Soviet-style bureaucracy to get anything achieved. “They asked why the string players needed new strings. When I told them that strings sometimes break, they said why can’t they play more quietly?” Petrenko recalls this and similar lunacies with a mocking smile.
In Liverpool Petrenko had to learn the mysteries of Scouse culture and Premier League football — a test he’s passed with flying colours by being named an “Honorary Scouser” by the Lord Mayor in 2009. He found a can-do attitude in the city and the orchestra that was very refreshing. “They are willing to try anything, and they always want to go further.” After seven years he can look back on some signal successes, in particular an award-winning series of recordings of all Shostakovich’s symphonies.
Earlier this year Petrenko faced a new challenge and another new culture, when he took up the post of Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Once a little-known outpost of the orchestral world, Oslo’s orchestra has shot several ranks up the league table, thanks in large part to the long tenure of the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons (who Petrenko studied with in St. Petersburg).
The contrast shows itself at the musical level too. “In Oslo the musicians are more like German musicians. English players are very quick, they throw themselves into new things, but maybe get bored quicker. Here they think about each note, they want to go deeper and deeper.” Are there things about this new city that puzzle him? “Yes, the dark! Oslo is on the same latitude as my home city St. Petersburg, and it has similar very dark nights. In Russia we love to counteract the dark with bright lights, but here they actually like to be gloomy, sitting in a room with one candle. Our hall here in Oslo needs to be brighter and more welcoming. That’s something I want to change.”
The reticence in the national character is something Petrenko perceives in the orchestra’s sound. “This orchestra has fantastic potential, but I feel they are afraid to unleash it. Sometimes they don’t play like a unit, the two sides don’t communicate. There are many things we need to work on.”
Orchestral maneouvres: Petrenko leads the string section (Peter Adamik)
It’s an interesting fact that however distinguished an orchestra, a new music director always spots mundane technical things that don’t seem quite right. Beyond that, Petrenko’s new orchestra faces similar challenges to orchestras everywhere. “We need to break the barrier between orchestra and audience,” he says. “There’s an attitude here that says we are the great musicians up here, you are the audience down there worshipping us. I want to create a different feeling, that we are all in the performance together. It’s a partly a matter of bringing in more youngsters, for example by working with universities, and also schools. We made big strides in Liverpool in this respect, and I think Oslo could learn from this.”
Petrenko has another, larger aim in view, for which Simon Rattle is something of a role model. “I admire the way Simon has changed the deep dark sound of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra to something more flexible, with a greater understanding of different styles. That’s something we haven’t heard from that orchestra since the early days of von Karajan. It’s unfortunate the orchestra itself seems not so happy with the result.” Is that their mistake? “Well, it’s their choice,” he says wryly. “You have to remember as a conductor you can only do what you’re allowed to do. I think these days a conductor’s real job is to achieve timbral and stylistic virtuosity. The old days of an orchestra having one specific sound are gone.”
Working on an orchestra is clearly a never-ending job. “Of course there’s no perfect orchestra in the world, one always has to work. It’s just the top quality bar you have to raise, in other words the best the orchestra can achieve, but also the bottom bar. You have to ensure the orchestra never falls below a certain level.”
Petrenko is a driven perfectionist. Does this mean he’s perpetually unsatisfied? “Well, it’s true I think of myself as a pursuer of truth. I’m trying with this orchestra to get closer to an ideal, and of course that’s something we sometimes get close to, sometimes not so close, but we never really touch. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the players’ efforts, or that I’m in a state of permanent frustration. I can still say after a concert, 'that was great'. But I always want to go further.”