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A Conversation with Vasily Petrenko

November 7, 2008

Liverpool’s year in the European spotlight is just the beginning: the charismatic conductor, 2007 Young Artist of the Year, has had a massive impact but wants more action, says Michael McManus

There is certainly no mistaking Vasily Petrenko, even on a first sighting in a bustling hotel lobby. He is famously tall, blond and striking in appearance. It is soon apparent, however, that there is more to this conductor: behind those clear blue eyes, canniness and ambition abound in large measure.

The first recording by Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for Naxos (something of a coup for the label) is of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony [8.570568]—released on 29 September. He has also begun work on a Shostakovich symphonic cycle for the label, his only regret being that “we couldn’t fit all the symphonies into the concert programme for the next five years”. He regards Shostakovich as “one of the greatest composers of the 20th century—you explore the history of the man and the history of the country at the same time”—while musing that, had it not been for the strictures of Soviet communism, Shostakovich “would have written something very different…something for himself”.

Petrenko revels in what he is achieving on Merseyside. Liverpool is Europe’s Capital of Culture and the city’s renaissance has been exemplified and enhanced by the arrival of the charismatic young Russian. This year has brought extraordinary events—for instance, Viennese waltzes accompanying 1oo dancing couples who had spent months practicing for their big night. Petrenko believes the RLPO now has the youngest audience of any UK symphony orchestra; he is regularly hailed in the street by “young lads” who have benefitted from free or reduced-price tickets, and the 1600-seat Philharmonic Hall boasts an average attendance of 1400. His affection for the orchestra is palpable: he speaks of musicians who “understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and share the same ideas”.

Better-used to the comparative chaos of the Russian orchestra, Petrenko is also profoundly grateful to the cadre of administrators in Liverpool who liberate him to focus on the music—“more order is better than more anarchy”—but his views on the Philharmonic Hall itself are well known and trenchant. “The auditorium itself is great,” he explains, “but what’s around it is not that great.” There’s no parking, his musicians must “practice somewhere in the corridors,” the orchestral administration “sits on the shoulders of one another” and intermissions are being extended because the foyer is so cramped (“like the Tokyo subway”). Petrenko has already extended his Liverpool contract until 2012, but will not be drawn on his intentions thereafter. They are evidently contingent upon what happens post-2008, on whether or not Liverpool goes on developing as a “cultural point of destination. The year 2008 is not the final step in the culture of this city—it’s the first step.”

Those who cannot get to Liverpool have plenty of opportunities to sample the work of Petrenko and the RLPO. They are regularly broadcast live by Classic FM, they tour heavily, and the recording schedule seems no less punishing.

- Gramophone, November 2008 (edited)

TCHAIKOVSKY: Manfred Symphony / The Voyevoda
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic OrchestraPetrenko
LISZT Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2 / Totentanz
NebolsinRoyal Liverpool Philharmonic OrchestraPetrenko

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra website


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