Photography: Mark McNulty

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After 15 years at the helm of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko is stepping down as Chief Conductor to (literally) take up the baton at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Ahead of his final concerts, Stuart Miles O’Hara speaks to the Saint Petersburg native who transformed Merseyside’s oldest musical institution.

I don’t know if you’ve read Bido Lito!, but we’re mainly a pop magazine, and some readers might wonder what exactly a conductor does. So, in your own words, what is the job?
Most people think it is kind of a ballet. The thing to understand is that it’s the conductor’s movements first, then the sound. You create the sound by your movements. What you see in the concert is the tip of the iceberg. Pop groups prepare an album for months, they create the songs, decide how to play them, rehearse, record it, then go on tour. But for a classical orchestra it’s the same story in three days. This is only possible with a conductor, who defines the pace and emotional content. In pop music this is defined by the three, maybe five members of the group. In an orchestra we’re talking 80-100. Every one of them has their own opinion about how to play the music and what it’s about: is it sad, or funny, or tragic? 

And thirdly, it’s mental training and motivation. Most pop groups don’t survive over 10 years. It’s normal, people get sick of each other, being so close for so long, however talented they are. More talented is more difficult, because they have stronger individuality! In an orchestra, players perform with each other for 20, sometimes 30 years. To keep those people having a certain degree of joy in coming to work is also a job for the conductor.

It’s multifaceted, a lot of musical and social skills, and a lot is just knowledge about every piece. When you just listen to the music you don’t quite understand the depth of it. This week we’re performing Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony. I read about it; it was written in 1943, quite a bleak year, in London, but he started the sketches in 1938 when he met his second wife. And also, you have to know what the 4th Symphony is like, so entirely different from the 5th. It’s a never-ending education for a conductor. I did this symphony a month ago in Oslo, but already I think a little bit differently about it, because I’ve learned something, not just with the piece but from life experience.

You started as Chief Conductor with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) in 2006, but you had guest conducted the orchestra before, right?
Yeah, in December 2004.

You were the orchestra’s youngest ever conductor at the time, aged just 28. Can you remember your first impressions of the city?
Of course! It was one of my first times in the UK. I didn’t know British mentality and culture yet. It was a hotel designed for football fans with rooms where you need to sit on the bed to open the cupboard, the window looks onto the traffic lights, the breakfasts have something you’ve no idea what it’s cooked from, and it’s noisy because the fans are drinking in their rooms. By then I knew about the existence of the orchestra, but not the history. It was late notice and low budget for that concert. So I came with wide open eyes. The first rehearsal was actually in Bootle.

VASILY PETRENKO Image 2

Really!?
I arrived at Bootle Town Hall, which is a beautiful building but a very booming, reverberant one, not one designed for orchestras. It had refurbishment outside, so you constantly had hammers knocking on the walls. I was naïve, I was trying to argue with Scouse workers. I couldn’t understand the answers, but I didn’t stop. For the first day that was my impression: ‘Where am I? What is this?’

I felt potential in the orchestra from the beginning, and there were a lot of young forces who wanted to progress, that’s probably one of the most important things. They wanted to discover, to improve, and there was Capital of Culture coming up in 2008. This combination of factors is how the story started.

You mentioned you’ve just been with the Oslo Philharmonic (Petrenko was also their Chief Conductor from 2013 to 2020) and you’ve led the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, so you have a busy international schedule. But when you have free time on Merseyside, what do you for yourself, apart from classical music?
The Tate and the Williamson Art Gallery, which is close to my house in Wirral. One of the positive effects of Covid (very few of them!), for the first time in years I was able to go fishing in the docks! Usually I’m so busy. I also play football with the orchestra, just five-a-side, more for health than anything. The schedule is: midday football, three o’clock rehearsal, 7.30 concert.

If you were to reflect on your tenure at the RLPO, what would be a standout concert?
I treat each concert as standout. Each one is the only one. But what’s memorable is the opening of the [M&S] Arena in 2008. The orchestra was on scaffolding and I was in a scissor lift going up and down six metres above the stage. If I remember right, we had 22 different pop groups. To coordinate all that was very difficult! 

Another was Mahler’s 8th Symphony in the Anglican Cathedral in 2011. You hear it twice in there at the same time [because of the echo], but the choir alone was about 450, so that was a really spectacular thing. But there were also concerts with [pianist] Simon Trpčeski in St George’s Hall. The first time we were abroad in Japan, the first Proms here in London, that was quite memorable for everyone. I still think probably the best are ahead.

Are there any pieces you’ve never conducted with the RLPO that you wish you had?
The pool of music is endless. We’re so lucky that 300 to 400 years before us great geniuses wrote so much. There are Russian composers who I still haven’t introduced to Liverpool. Myaskovsky, who I think is due better recognition, and there’s more of Vaughan Williams to do. We haven’t performed enough Wagner. I’ve done a few Bruckner symphonies, and I would like to do more. The thing is, both of those composers have very special audiences. We found that it sold well – actually better than the marketing department expected – but they rarely come to other concerts. There’s so many. We have plans. 

“It’s actually the orchestra, the management, the organisation who are the main heroes. I’m just helping them” VASILY PETRENKO

What about the new guy taking over as chief conductor at RLPO, Domingo Hindoyan, have you met him yet?
We’ve met, but we haven’t talked about the job. I think it’s important to talk to the next Chief Conductor and share your view on the orchestra. He’ll have his own, but I think experience is important for everyone. He’s 41, relatively young for a conductor, so all the cards are in his hands. He has a lot of enthusiasm from that great Venezuelan school.

How does it feel to begin performing with an audience again, in Liverpool and London?
This the first time the RPO have seen the public for a year! We’ll play socially distanced, 1.5 metres between chairs, and only the wind players are allowed to take their masks off, the rest must wear them all the way through. But that’s life at the moment. When you look into pubs at people standing shoulder to shoulder, you think, ‘Really?’ You need to keep distance onstage between orchestral musicians who are tested prior to every project? It really is a time of double standards. 

Petrenko isn’t leaving the Phil entirely, though. In recognition of his being one of the longest-serving directors in their 180-year history, they’ve made him Conductor Laureate. Despite being one of the most in-demand conductors around, and with half his career still ahead of him (he’s only 44), he’s pretty modest about his achievements for someone who stands in front of 80 virtuoso musicians every night without playing a note.
It’s not goodbye, it’s not farewell. I’ll still perform in Liverpool, just less frequently. It’s always my love and my pleasure. I always say: the RLPO existed well before my birth and will exist after my death. I’m very honoured to be part of its history, but it’s actually the orchestra, the management, the organisation who are the main heroes. I’m just helping them.

Vasily Petrenko’s final concerts as chief conductor at Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra take place on 9th and 10th July. 

liverpoolphil.com/whats-on

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