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The Triumph of the Good – Jeremy Siepmann interviews Vasily Petrenko

October 16, 2011

Vasily Petrenko

In 2006, a willowy young Russian with the grace of a dancer and the gait of an athlete hailed a taxi in Liverpool. The driver was in conversational mood. ‘So, mate,’ he asked, ‘why’ve you come to Liverpool?’ ‘To be a conductor,’ the Russian replied. ‘Oh right! On the buses, eh?’ Not quite. Vasily Petrenko was on his way to being maybe the hottest young maestro since Simon Rattle, some 30 years before (then the whole of Petrenko’s lifetime). But then his journey did start early:

‘I studied in a very special school, in Leningrad, which had a tradition of producing choral conductors, so I knew from a very young age, like seven or eight, that I wanted to be at least a choral conductor if not actually a Symphony conductor. Like most Soviet kids, I started by playing the piano, and I spent quite a lot of years singing in a chorus. I also studied the fiddle a bit, though I never had enough time to do it properly, and a bit of clarinet. In fact, I tried most of the instruments of the orchestra, just to see how they worked. So that, basically, was my background. As for my first paid conducting job, that happened almost by accident in the Opera Theatre at the Conservatory in St Petersburg. One of my teachers had a production of Eugene Onegin, and on the opening night the person who was supposed to conduct the offstage quartet couldn’t make it. So they caught me in the corridor and said “Go on. You know you can do this. So go on in there and do it.” And that was my “début”. Conducting the soloists for about ten minutes, offstage!’

With a repertoire of more than thirty operas, Petrenko is more or less equally an operatic and symphonic conductor. Has his experience in each nourished his growth in the other? ‘Very much so. As a symphonic conductor you learn in the opera house that you need to give a certain flexibility to the soloists—not only the singers but the soloists in the orchestra too: the solo winds, brass, percussionists, everyone who plays a solo. Also in a symphony orchestra you need to create an atmosphere in which everybody feels like a soloist. Playing together, and thinking about playing together, certainly—but feeling that they’re the soloists, that they’re all a group of soloists, not just a bunch of musicians trying to make some noise. In the opera house, on the other hand, one needs to understand the overall feeling of balance, to feel the richness of the orchestral material whatever it is, even if it’s just accompanying the singers. I think that’s very important, to recognise and understand the importance of each voice, of every single individual that’s there. Conductors need to listen to everything that’s going on around them, and to trust that it’s all going to be right.’

Petrenko has by now conducted all over the world. Has he found that national ‘schools’ of performance/composition/interpretation still exist, or have we homogenised into one great global village? ‘I’ve found quite a lot of differences, actually—in interpretations, in mentality, in behaviour. The Russian school, of course, is quite different from the English, and that’s quite easy to define; but there are also many other schools. French musicians are very different from the British, southern Europe is very different from northern Europe, American experience and behaviour is also very different. I still feel quite different when conducting in Liverpool and Paris, for instance. But a lot of this has less to do with strictly musical tradition, I think, than with national life styles. The British, for instance, and I’m not talking here only about musicians but people in general, work very intensively. And the intensity of the work is really high. Because of this, however, people are used to thinking in relatively short terms. To work very hard—for two-and-a-half hours. I would say in general, with British orchestras, that the very first reading of a piece is already quite good, and at the second rehearsal you get very quickly to a very high standard. But to get above even that very high standard can be a difficult task, because people easily think that that’s really enough. Quite often in the British lifestyle there just isn’t time for something more. And sometimes when you go abroad, you feel that orchestras just aren’t ready for this sort of pace. But with continental European orchestras, and American orchestras, you sometimes rehearse for three, four days in a row—something which would hardly ever happen in Britain. Of course there are many influences, by chief conductors and the musicians working with them, regarding style of playing and manner of behaviour. And of course the world gets more and more international, more connected between different nations and races and everything. But there’s no lack of diversity.’

Do different orchestras, even within the same country/culture, still have distinct, different ‘personalities’? If so, what is the personality of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and how has it developed under Petrenko’s direction? ‘Of course orchestras have different personalities! Just like girls do! The most important part of the RLPO’s personality is that the players are so eager to develop themselves, to improve themselves—which is probably one of the most important things there is. They have a huge, huge will to really make the sound better, to make the orchestra play better, everyday, in every respect, and that’s tremendously important. That way you can reach the highest peaks. You know, if people just think “Oh we’re such great professionals that there are very few things to improve”, well that’s a way to nowhere.’

Speaking of personalities, I wondered if knowledge of a composer’s biography is useful or important to Petrenko in building his interpretations. ‘Oh very much so. I always study the historical context of every piece that I conduct, not only the biography of that composer but what was happening in the world at that time. And sometimes if it’s a programmatic piece, which has a story behind it, it’s important to know not only what that story is but about its historical context. And even the ‘purest’ music is itself part of a bigger story, and we have to be aware of that too. Look at the 20th-century, for instance, where there were so many branches from the main body of music. Think of the huge difference between Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, for instance, both of them from the same country. And there were many, many more composers trying to find very different ways of expressing themselves. Nowadays, with the Internet and information so accessible, I must say, gladly, that this kind of research is quite easy to do—easier than ever before, of course. You still have to decipher it and spend a lot of time over it, but at least it’s possible to find just about all the resources.’

Biography where Shostakovich is concerned is a highly charged issue. Where does Petrenko stand on what we might call the Volkov affair, and how if at all has it affected his approach to interpreting the symphonies? ‘I think there are a lot of interesting things in Volkov’s Testimony, but I also think that there’s quite a lot of fiction. I wouldn’t say actually faking, but exaggerating moments which probably don’t need exaggerating. For me, in general, the music of Shostakovich, is a kind of portrait of the artist-composer, living through many historical moments in the life of Russia and the Soviet Union, and trying to survive in the circumstances, finding, through music, his own way of being alive. And maybe the most important thing is that his music is not only about himself but, more generally, about being a human being in the Soviet Union. There are the political moments, of course, but not only those. There’s a lot of autobiography, a lot of very personal expression—of love, desire, fun, drama, tragedy…it’s got everything. And for me, the symphonies are just incomparably richer than Volkov’s Testimony. Testimony gives you a feeling of sensations. Sensations here, sensations there. Whereas the symphonies give me the feeling of a huge autobiography, where things are much broader, much deeper—and as I say, just incomparably richer.’

Apart from their historical significance, what gives these symphonies their importance? What is their artistic significance? ‘First of all, I’d say, their unique language. It has many connections with Mahler’s symphonies, of course, and with other symphonies of the 20th-century, but if you hear a symphony by Shostakovich you know so clearly that this is him. It’s so straightforward. You only need to listen to three minutes maximum and you know it has to be his music. It’s a very unique style, complemented by very unique orchestration. And that distinction is particularly important because nowadays, especially, many composers, sadly, are very similar. But Shostakovich is so different from anyone else. And his ability to compose, consistently, music that’s so unmistakably his own is something I find absolutely amazing. Another thing is that he couldn’t be happy if anyone was suffering. His music therefore sets out to overcome, or at least to lessen, not only the sufferings of the Soviet Union but the strife of the world. And another important point: for all the tremendously dramatic happenings, his is the music of the common man, the normal human being, in our days, in all of the 20th-century. If you look into history, you find most composers in the 19th-century writing about heroes. You listen to the music of Beethoven and you think that this is a hero doing something—whether it’s the Eroica, or the Pastoral, or the “Ode to Joy”—you feel that this is someone at least a couple of miles higher than you. Whereas in Shostakovich’s music you feel that it could be you. Your suffering, your life, rather than witnessing some hero. It’s that personal.’

And what does he most hope listeners will take away with them after hearing his performances and recordings of these works? What does he most want to reveal to them about Shostakovich? ‘Strangely enough, and this may surprise you, I’d say a sense of optimism. Even in the darkest symphonies, like No. 14, you wake up next day and somehow you feel in touch with the good things in your life, and find yourself looking ahead, aware of all the positive things that the future may hold.’

With fifteen symphonies to choose from, does Petrenko have a favourite? ‘You know, for me, all of them are great. And because I know his biography very deeply and know the history of the Soviet Union, all the symphonies, for me, are related to the great historical moments of the country. I’d say that from the First Symphony, which is a kind of journey into revolutionary Petrograd, to the tragic drama of the Fifth, and the wartime of the Seventh and Eighth, to the later Tenth and Eleventh, the feeling of the Jewish story in the Thirteenth, the thinking about death in the Fourteenth, and then the overcoming of this feeling in the Fifteenth, which ends very peacefully…it’s a long journey, through the time, through the years, through the age, through history. And, in answer, finally, to your question, I really can’t choose one favourite that stands out from the others.’

These works are both very intimate and very public. Does Petrenko miss the presence of an audience when recording them? ‘I do. Because of course the audience does provide a stimulus, and it can be hard to keep this “concert mood” for six hours without having any faces in the hall. It’s quite demanding, to keep the orchestra in the hotspot for that length of time. So yes, from that point of view, one does miss the audience, but one also doesn’t miss all the distractions which an audience can provide!’

Petrenko is famously keen on football. Are there ways, I wondered, in which he sees music as a game? ‘Do you know, as it happens, Shostakovich has actually written a piece called Football, which reflects a football game in about five to seven minutes. It’s a lovely little piece, in which you can clearly hear the whistles of the referee, the players running here and there, and struggling with each other, so there are many similarities. Interestingly enough, there’s been quite a lot of music written in the last ten or fifteen years about football.’

I hadn’t, however, been thinking of music describing a game, but rather of music as a game in its own right. ‘I think it is that, yes. Yes. For me the main similarity between the classical performance and the football game is that neither will ever be the same twice. You’ll never see the same two games of football and you’ll never hear two identical performances of even the best-known classical pieces. The music is always trying to find its way—today, tonight, right now—and you never know quite what’s going to happen. I think it’s fantastic!’

Petrenko having mentioned Shostakovich’s optimism, I wondered, in closing, whether he too is an optimist. ‘Well. Not in the mornings! No, seriously, I am. And the reason is very simple. I think that classical culture—not only music but in the broader sense of arts and literature—is something which is very important for the world. People often don’t realise this, but it enshrines some eternal values which will remain forever, and which ultimately gives people the hope that however difficult their lives, however great their strife, a bright future is still possible.’

And what better message is there? Seen in that light, the future of music would seem to be assured.

Previous releases of the Shostakovich cycle conducted by Vasily Petrenko:

Vasily Petrenko Biography & Discography

Dmitry Shostakovich Biography & Discography


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