Vasily Petrenko: to understand music you don’t need to know any languages

irkanov. Following considerable success in a number of international conducting competitions, he was appointed Chief Conductor of the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra from 2004 to 2007. Currently, Petrenko holds the position of Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (appointed in 2013/14), Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Chief Conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra (since 2015) and Principal Guest Conductor of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (since 2016). Petrenko has also served as Principal Guest Conductor of the Mikhailovsky Theatre where he began his career as Resident Conductor from 1994 to 1997. Ten years on from his landmark Mahler cycle in the 2009-2011 seasons, in 2019/20 Petrenko returns to the composer’s symphonies, presenting all nine in chronological order across 2020 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

We sat down to talk with Vasily after his rehearsal with London Philharmonic Orchestra that featured Beethoven, Sibelius and Oliver Knussen, being part of the orchestra’s 2020 Vision series. We discussed the influences of his conducting teachers, his ways to come with clean mind to new rehearsals, differences between organisation of music life in Russia and Europe, his approaches to programming and also some funny moments in his career.


Vasily, could you talk about the moment when you understood that your life would be related to music? How did conducting come about from other professions?

I can’t remember the exact moment. I remember the sense and the feeling, because when I was 4 years old I was brought to the children’s choir which was near where I lived – it was at the local Dom Pionerov (The House of Pioneers). And I remember singing in the choir and enjoying it more and more, even at that very early age. And then I passed an entrance exam for St Petersburg Capella Boy Music school, having been selected into this class of 25 from 450 – so I almost felt obliged to continue with music. Talking about conducting – already at the age of 7 in a choir school you knew that you would be a choir conductor. You’re not studying conducting from 7 years old, but you know that throughout 10 years you will study and learn all the disciplines and then you will be a choir conductor. Why did I move to the opera and orchestra conducting? At certain point I found… I won the competitions as a choir conductor and I knew all things related to it, but I thought that to me a single instrument, which is human voice, was not enough. I wanted more variety and I had more curiosity about various instruments and how the orchestra functions. And also, I’ve seen and participated in many choir concerts, but with orchestra you may be on stage much more often and the repertoire is wider. I was always curious about the new things, new repertoire and the new stuff, and that’s why I gradually transited to the opera and symphony conducting.


And how did you learn the repertoire? Is there a period in the life of the conductor when one is reading the scores on everyday basis – similarly to reading all the books of classic literature – in order to get acquainted with the tradition?

I think, all the life is like that. You are just reading the scores constantly. The main working places nowadays are airports, aircrafts, trains, buses, cars – where you move – and, of course, at home. But it happens constantly. Recently in London I was doing Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto, which is for me – and for the orchestra – the very first time when I conduct it and they play it. And that’s a new score – you just read it and you learn it. And now I’m learning for the next week. Next week is Resurrection Symphony, Mahler’s Second, and even if I’ve done it, I’m still re-reading that. And this week in Newcastle there will be a Beethoven 250 project, so it is a constant process, it never stops.

So you learn by the projects you have to do at work, not adding something on top? Do you study some of them that might be useful only in theory?

Well, sometimes I look at them just out of curiosity. Because sometimes you don’t have a project, but you think you may program some music. And if you want to program a score that you haven’t done, you have to study it. I confess that now there is not much time for everything else.

I was very impressed when I learned who your teachers were Mariss Jansons, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ilya Musin, Yuri Temirkanov and Ravil Martynov. Could you describe these conductors and their influence on you?

Well. talking about Ravil Martynov, he was, I think, extremely gifted conductor, he had a decent career for his time, he belonged to the same generation as Yuri Temirkanov. But he also had asthma, a very heavy case, and that restrained him from many things. He was almost constantly on medication which was not so progressive as it is now, so it was much more difficult. And sadly he died being only 58 years old – also because of asthma and heart problems. But I learned a lot of things from him. Probably, main thing is this: if everything is right in your mindyou’re your head, the hands will follow, and the orchestra will follow. The problem with conducting – when you’re learning it – is not in your technique, in your hands, but in your mind. And if you are very clear about what you want, your hands will follow and then the orchestra will follow. If you have doubts and hesitations or you have not learned the music enough, however clear your hands are, the orchestra will hate you.

So, will they feel your lack of confidence?

It’s not lack of confidence, it’s more lack of knowledge of how music should sound, as some conductors can be extremely confident but they don’t know the piece. It is your internal knowledge. And it comes of course from reading of scores, from musical and general life experience. And that’s what I learned from him – this attention to details, this vision of how much you need to learn and know the score.

So, does it mean that you always have to be one level above the orchestra?

It would be rather one level above yourself. And next day – one level above yourself yesterday. It’s constant perfectionism. Then I learned the sense of music flow from Temirkanov. He is extremely gifted and genius conductor in terms of how to phrase the music and where the phrase ends. Not just in Russian music – I think, in general. So, this natural flow and phrasing of music – that is what I learned from him. From Mariss – I think, the key words is respect.

To musicians?

To musicians, to music, to composer, to everyone. He was one of the most respectful persons, and was respected by the others. And when he passed away (sadly), the reaction of everyone was incredible. Everybody loved him, everybody respected him in return for his respect. It was outstanding especially at the Soviet times when the principle of relations between conductor and orchestra was based on dictatorship – pushing with the strong hand from the top. He always had respect for musicians and they paid him back, and that is important. With Esa-Pekka I learned several things – one of them was simplicity. You don’t need to make music more complicated than it is. I remember we had several masterclasses and lessons with him, and one was on The Rite of Spring. As a young conductor, you consider it to be extremely complex, and indeed it is. But he said: «Think of it as a little dance. You should not forget that The Rite of Spring is a ballet ultimately – it revolutionized music, but it is still a ballet. So you should perceive it as a dance rather than doing all the complicated stuff with music». In general, his rational way of giving you thoughts about music and its delivery to the players – manually, with your voice and gestures – is quite unbelievable. The other one was Neeme Järvi, who was able to make classical Viennese music like Beethoven or Weber sounds a bit more romantic and not as dry as it can be. So his way of phrasing and and finding the moments of expressivity in music is also something absolutely incredible. I’ve also seen many other people at work – like Valery Gergiev. There were his incredible managerial abilities and also the amount of energy he has and can add to the music. It’s probably one of the most thrilling moments, when you feel the amount of energy he gives to the orchestra and to the singers.

What about Ilya Musin, the famous pedagogue of St Petersburg Conservatoire?

I visited his class many times. He offered me to be in his class, but by the time I passed the exams he already had 36 students, so it was just too much. But you can come as a freelance and just watch. So I learned things from him through just observing. It was his phrase that I really believe in: «The conductor’s baton itself does not make any sounds». It is musicians who play. You should help them but you cannot say: «I play the piece». No, it is the orchestra. In this triangle between composer, orchestra and conductor the role of conductor is to help the orchestra to play the music by composer. It’s not like «I’m a God, I know everything». No, you just try to achieve what the composer intended.

You are a very special figure who combines the wealth of experience in conducting in Russia and Britain. You’re mentioned now as a Russian-British conductor. It’s a rare situation. How the move change your mentality as a person and as a conductor? Did the world suddenly open to you when you moved to Britain? Did you make comparisons between this new period and your life in Russia?

It definitely changed my mentality. I grew up in Soviet Union where, as I mentioned before, the relationship between conductor and the orchestra was in a strictly directive way. And also musicians in the orchestra were expecting from the conductor to deal with everything. And I still remember from my work in St. Petersburg that it was normal that musicians would not turn up because they had a hangover after previous night, and they expected you to call them and say: «What the hack is going on?». This is just an example. Or they expect you to bring their music or to mark the bowings for them rather than having it as their own responsibility. And it was on many, many levels. They expect you to decide all their problems. So there was all this difference I had to learn – that such attitude was absent in the West. On the other hand, there were also practical comparisions. I remember one of the first rehearsals in Liverpool. Even if we still had just 35 seconds of music to finish the piece, exactly of the time when rehearsal was to finish, the musicians stopped and left. To me that would not have been possible, but I learned that the discipline and the strict schedule are very important here in the West. Also, I had to adapt to the English mentality which is quite different to Russian one. It is far less directive: this politeness, which, I think, is one of the core features of English mentality and relations between people. Even if people can think or do nasty things about each other, it is all done with huge politeness, with this English smile. It is also the country of no exclusions: everybody is more or less equal in front of the law. In Russia the grey zone is bigger, where something can be immoral, but legal, or illegal but moral. Here the cut between the two is much clearer. Also, especially in London, the work rate in music world, which is probably much higher than anywhere else – the amount of work people do and the speed of work. There was a survey, and according to it the lunch break in the UK is not more than 23 minutes. I’m not saying that all this work is necessary, it’s just a work ethics which is entirely different. And also the whole structure is different. Basically in Russia if you are a chief conductor, you are the god. You can do almost anything. You can fire people if you dislike them, you can decide on the repertoire for the rehearsals at a very last moment. You also should react promptly, because in Russia everything changes very quickly. Here you are much more restricted in your rights, you know the area of your responsibility and you cannot cross the line. Your role is a part of society, and not something outstanding.

As an Artistic Director of the British orchestra, did you feel the need to be the messenger of Russian music?

Well, at first, they ask Russian conductors to do Russian music, as they as French conductors to do Berlioz and Finnish conductors to do Sibelius. But I always had a very broad taste and always wanted to do a lot of different music. Yes, one of the earliest things we did in Liverpool was the Shostakovich cycle which lasted four years, but also did the whole Mahler cycle, the Beethoven cycle and other repertoire. You do bring the taste and atmosphere of Russian and Soviet history into the West because they do not know it. But nowadays is is also vice versa: I am bringing Elgar to Russia, talking about him there and trying to achieve true British sound in his music. Earlier I wouldn’t have done so because didn’t know it then. So now it is cross-pollination.

But you also have a third job – you are the Artistic Director at Oslo Philharmonic till the end of this season. What has been your programming strategy there?

It is a different organization, and Scandinavia in general is different. Scandinavia is the country of socialism that won. This socialism has its negative and positive sides. So, to me, of course, I think it’s a duty of every chief conductor to bring the music of the country to the programme. Here in England I often do English music, in Oslo it is obviously a lot of Grieg, also Sibelius and contemporary premieres. There were also discoveries among 20th and 21st century Norwegian composers like Johan Halvorsen or Amund Svensson. But since their time with Mariss Jansons they also had a huge tradition with Russian music. There was quite natural for them to go to Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff territory. We also did a lot of Richard Strauss – his tone poems, cycle of Scriabin’s symphonies, because I wanted to present Scriabin’s music to the country. It was a bit different there, but I think for every orchestra and every organization the balance is quite important. You should have a season which will have main ideas featuring such and such composers. This year we are doing the whole Mahler cycle in Liverpool. Also there will be Beethoven, as it is his 250th anniversary, but apart from that there is also contemporary music, there is romantic music, there is French and American music. When I am planning the season, I’m trying to formulate the main ideas of the season – one or two – plus I think of what will be good for the orchestra and for the audiences, and try to broaden the repertoire in general.

Do you do it alone? Or do you have a council of advisors?

It depends. In Oslo I was doing most of the programming myself, but then it has to go through the Artistic Committee. Initially as a chief conductor you work together with the artistic planner, who does planning for the guest conductors, and you do all the season programming. Then it goes to the artistic committee that contains musicians from the orchestra, and they have to approve it. If they don’t, you should change your programme. Their word is the last instance of decision-making. In Liverpool it was between me, the orchestra’s Chief Executive Andrew Cornell and Sandra Parr who is the artistic planner of the orchestra. So usually we sat together and I gave the initial ideas about what had to be included in the season. They also gave me some ideas, mainly regarding what soloists and conductors we should have, and then we could form the final programme. It takes quite a while, usually several meetings.

Since you have mentioned contemporary music, how do you discover new names? Do you do commissions?

There were few things that were just discovered. For instance, I’ve done the John Tavener’s Requiem in Liverpool and that was a big discovery of music of John Tavener. It is music that stands out of common living pace… the pace of life is now very quick, while his music is so meditative and different that you have to drop you pace of life in order to understand it. It’s not easy to do it, but it is great, it is multi-religious (Orthodox and others), and this is an incredible piece of music. And that was a discovery for me. There was a premiere of Philip Glass whose music I knew and I realized how successful his music was, even though it is quite exhausting to rehearse and to perform it because of constant repetitions in it. Recently I have done a premiere of Kenneth Hesketh – his Piano Concerto Uncoiling the River. I have worked with him for quite a while. Also I worked with Liverpool-born Emily Howard. It functons in both ways. On the one hand, a composer comes and says: «This is my piece». And there are quite a lot of composers who send their music and recordings – it happens constantly. On the other hand, it is often a co-commission between various orchestras, with one institution (say, Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam) discovering a composer and then co-commissioning them, and that’s how you learn about their work. But it is not just music that is written now. I’m talking about mid- and second half of the 20th century music like Berio or Hindemith whom I introduced to public in Liverpool as he wasn’t known. Even earlier works like music by Myaskovsky that I brought to Oslo.

There are specificities for Oslo and Liverpool, but from what you describe I feel that there are multiple connections between orchestras and people. Do you think that music is special in these terms, and there is no other art like this?

I think that music is special at first instance because to understand music you don’t need to know any languages. You need to know language to understand the literature, you also have to know a little bit to understand paintings. In order to understand Michelangelo of Raphael you need to know what Italy was like. You don’t need anything to understand the music, you just listen to it and it goes right through your emotions. There is this direct link from heart to heart.

It is mentioned about music so many times, but is it truly enough?

It is, it is. I’m actually jealous in many ways of the people who are just listening to music. Because I can’t do that. That’s a curse of professionals. We analyze it. It’s immediately analyzed. Any music sound is transformed into notes for me. I’m trying to remove all that and just listen with pure emotions, but it is really impossible.

What exactly do you analyze? The work of your colleagues? How do they conduct?

No, the music itself. When it comes to me, I hear the sounds and I see the notes immediately. Ant that’s why this analysis starts immediately. There is emotional content, of course, I’m not a computer, but primarily you analyze small things things like ‘oboe was a little bit flat’ or ‘percussions were a little bit ahead’ – the things that happen naturally in live performances. And this comes ahead of emotions. And that’s why I’m jealous of the people who do not have such perceptions.

Would you be more emotional when listening to rock or metal music?

No, it is any music I hear. It’s not only classical music.

Do you see the notes when you hear Elton John or Elvis Presley?

Of course. Listening to pop music is difficult for me, because most of it is quite primitive. There are only a few examples that are incredibly complex or interesting. But that is why when I am asked about what I listen to when I don’t listen to classical music I answer: «Nothing. Silence or sounds of nature».

Do you meditate to get rid of the previous knowledge and work of the previous week? Do you need to get it out of your head?

It is just a practical need, because say last Sunday in Pittsburgh, USA there was a completely different programme. It was Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, Violin Concerto by Sibelius and Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture. On Monday morning you have to rehearse something very different. And by the nature of our minds the music still sounds inside your mind even after the concert. The mind has a sort of inertia and you cannot stop it immediately. But professionalism is in how to offload those files and upload different music. Because imagine: I’m coming here to London, I have to do the Second Symphony by Sibelius, but something like Ravel is still sounding inside me – it won’t be possible to work then.

How do you do that offloading?

Well, it is very difficult to say exactly how you do that, but internally in your mind you say: «Enough of that music». You basically voluntarily stop the inertia of sound to get it out of our mind quicker. That’s constant, you do it all the time. In a conducting career you do 200 concerts a year, a lot of different programs and you have to be spot on every day, every minute.

And how do you find contact with the orchestra as a principal or a guest conductor?

I don’t differ, whatever my position is. Of course, as a principal conductor, as a regular visitor, you can know the orchestra better. And of course you know a little bit better how to route the orchestra into the ideal sound you have on your mind. When you meet the orchestra for the first time, it is not a secret that every orchestra knows everything about conductor in the first five minutes. By just working and understanding. Five minutes is enough. They know where it will lead and what will happen. And it is very difficult to change their opinion after it. And it is the same with professional conductors, as we literally know after the first five minutes maximum how far you can go on the progression of the music with this or that orchestra.

Now you have a vantage point of comparison between Russia, Britain and Norway. Could you describe what the strong points and problematic issues with the development of music in Russia are. And in Europe, are there any challenges in this area?

I think the main problem in Russia is the lack long-term planning. Here in Europe it is a normal situation that I know all my engagements up to the end of 2022. It is at least two years in advance. There are a lot of things that are planned for 2023 and 2024 – three and four years in advance. And I can already envision some projects happening in different locations. In Russia it is is usually one year maximum. They do not plan further than that. It is all for today. That is why it is really difficult to get best soloists and best conductors. Money-wise the orchestras in Moscow and St. Petersburg can pay the fee that will be relatively equal to Europe. However, as they are not planning in advance, people usually are just busy. In Russia they don’t even look beyond next season in 99 percent of the cases. Here it is always a long-term strategy and aiming for the long time. On the contrary to that, the amount of state support Russian culture has is huge as compared to the state support here in England. It is much more both in money and general state support. That’s what I wish would happen here, so that politicians pay more attention. Here in the UK when the economic crisis started to happen, there suddenly was not enough budget to support the orchestras. Then the government said: «We now will try to make all the sponsorship and philanthropy work with private people supporting the orchestras as it is the case in America», but they did not mention one very important thing. In America every philanthropist has a tax relief based on the amount of money they give to the culture. In UK it does not happen. You will pay the taxes on top of the money you have given to the culture. I have said it many times: if they will introduce a tax relief in this country on the money spent on culture, then it will thrive. But the problem is that politicans want money to lend in their pockets. So this amount of state support and attention for the culture that exists in Russia – I wish that we had it here.

Could you describe some funny moments in your career? What was your most awkward experience as a conductor and did you have epiphany moments during concerts?

The awkward moments? We were on tour with Liverpool Phil in Malta and had an open-air concert in the fortress of La Valletta, their capital. It was for 5000-6000 people. We prepared the programme, we rehearsed it. Just before the concert they told me: «Actually, because the Prime Minister and the government would be here, you have to play the anthem of Malta». And of course nobody knows what it is. I asked them to send me the music. And as that was 15 years ago, they didn’t have a printer but a fax machine. So it arrived as a fax from somewhere, but we did not have time for the rehearsal. So there was the the score, however, the top of it was trimmed, so I didn’t know what the tempo was. Is this music fast or slow? Nobody knows. So I approached the stage worker and said: «Listen, I have to play your national anthem. Can you sing it for me?» And he was struggling: «Anthem? I don’t know it». Then before the concert they told me: «The procedures would be the following. The Prime Minister comes and sits in the front row. Then you invite him to stand up and you play the anthem, as everyone will stand up together with him». When I asked about how I recognize him, they answered: «That’s will be a man dressed very formally» And then, I am coming to the front of the audience and there are about fifty men in the front row wearng the same very formal suits. And who of them was the Prime Minister – I had no idea. I was trying to invite all of them by gesturing to stand up – several of them did, then everybody followed, we played the anthem, I hope more or less close to the right tempo. That happened many years ago. And funny moments – they are happening all the time. The highlights of the profession… There are certain pieces of music… Two weeks in Oslo I played Mahler 9 in Oslo. And this is a very special symphony. If it is done how it needs to be in terms of emotion, it provokes people to a happy cry afterwards. The message there is not death, it is transformation to some outer worlds and non-physical existence. And people who were coming to the dressing room after the concert, were all still crying and could not stop. And that was not because they were sad. That was because music made such an effect on them that for at least 20-30 minutes after the concert they were still in tears. And those moments – you treasure them.

If somebody is only beginning to listen to classical music, what would be your advice to them? How to motivate yourself or to overcome fears?

Just come and listen. Honestly, you should come and listen to the music and decide for yourself. Come with the open mind. You just listen to the music and feel its vibes, the emotional content. You don’t need to learn the structure of the piece. Come to any concert. You may like it, you may not. If you go with the thought that it is something for the elites, it is just silly. It has lost its elitist mark since two hundred years from now. It used to be in the era when Haydn wrote symphonies for his employer’s Sunday brunch, but it was two hundred years ago, and it is different now.