Vasily Petrenko interview


by Christopher Morley

Just before writing this I happened to catch on BBC Radio 4's Desert Islands Discs a wonderful performance of Wagner's Mastersingers Overture, full of detail, gloriously-phrased. The compere announced it was performed by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons.
On Friday that very same orchestra appears at Birmingham's Symphony Hall, this time under the baton of Vasily Petrenko, its current chief conductor, as part of a tour celebrating the ensemble's centenary.
"It is a very unique orchestra, one of the best orchestras in Scandinavia, in Europe and in the world," Vasily tells me from Oslo.
"It has a long history, and it also reflects the mentality of Norway. I guess every orchestra reflects the mentality of the place!
"We are now in our centenary year, and going from strength to strength. We have a very unique string sound, very rich, but at the same time quite direct, we have a wonderful blend of brass, and some brilliant woodwind soloists. Every one of them is a star, but together they make a galaxy!"
Vasily terminates his contract as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at the end of the 2020 centenary season, and as Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at the end of the 2020-21 season, becoming then Conductor Laureate of the RLPO (he is already an Honorary Scouser of the Merseyside city).
During his time on Merseyside he has built up a substantial portfolio of British music in his conducting repertoire, and indeed the programme he and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra bring to Birmingham includes Walk to the Paradise Garden from Delius' opera A Village Romeo and Juliet.
"I've spent 13 years in Liverpool, and I've seen a lot of traditions and British culture and I'm technically now British, a British citizen!
"I've always performed British music even before coming to the UK, one of the first was Britten's Noye's Fludde, the children's opera.. I've always been fascinated by Elgar, by Walton, by Delius, Vaughan Williams, and many, many other composers."
In 2021 Vasily takes the baton as principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a comparatively young organisation compared with the 150 years of the RLPO and the 100 years of the OPO. The RPO was one of the orchestras formed by the wealthy, idiosyncratic conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Compared with the august age of Petrenko's most recent orchestras it is a mere 75 years old.
"For me it's very important to be at the helm of a great, historic organisation, but it's equally important to be involved with something modern," Vasily insists, "looking forward, at the centre of cultural life, to show we are here, we are alive, and we are no museum!

"History, legacy and tradition are important," he declares, "but what are your aims for the future?"-
Exactly the opposite of the museum mentality is the burgeoning activity of young musicians, and Vasily Petrenko has long been a champion and favourite of aspiring youthful players. Between 2009 and 2013 he was principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (when he would famously play football with the youngsters between rehearsals), he has also worked extensively with the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, and since 2015 he has been principal conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra, with whom he provided the music at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at the World Leaders' Armistice Ceremony on November 11 last year. What a pity such opportunities for international co-operation and bonding are soon to be denied this country's rising young orchestral musicians.
As Vasily says of the intensive rehearsal courses for these youth ensembles, "you start with assembling great individuals, but within a week you see them becoming a great unit, a team.
"They're probably playing a piece for the first time, so they bring a very fresh approach, giving the performance of their lives. They expect so much from the conductor, and they make so much progress during the week, and move into becoming a professional orchestra."
Football imagery is never far away in our conversation. Vasilyl, who lives on the Wirral Peninsula with his wife (also a conductor) and children is a passionate supporter of Liverpool FC, and when I congratulate him on their brilliant success this season I can hear his smile beaming at me all the way from Oslo.
*Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra in Delius' Walk to the Paradise Garden, Grieg's Piano Concerto (soloist Nikolai Lugansky) and Sibelius' Fifth Symphony (Symphony Hall Birmingham March 8, 7.30pm; details on 0121-780 3333).

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