Recognised as one of the most exceptional musicians of his generation, Vasily Petrenko has taken Liverpool into his heart since he came to the region in 2006. A stalwart of musical excellence, his role as chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is sure to be a safe pair of hands to guide the orchestra as they celebrate their 175th anniversary. From opera to city regeneration, we spoke to the maestro about what’s on the horizon for 2015 and why an education in classical music has helped to inspire our city’s budding musicians.
You have the 175th anniversary this year of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. How important is that to you to be there as it reaches this important milestone?
It’s a major anniversary for the orchestra and for the society. It’s a big privilege to be with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at this time and to celebrate with the city, musicians and spectators. We’ve planned a lot of great things – concerts, events, surprises, everything!
What can we expect from the anniversary performance?
A celebration! We are trying to reconstruct the history, so pieces performed in Liverpool which were UK or world premieres, and reconstruct historical concepts. We have amazing archives and we can see the programmes of the concerts from over 100 years ago and replicate them.
There was a massive tradition of doing Beethoven’s ninth symphony and we’ve brought this as one of the pieces which was a stamp for Liverpool. Mendelssohn ‘Walpurgisnacht’ is another piece which Mendelssohn actually promoted by himself when he visited Liverpool. There’s historical context and also modern context because both of the pieces are some of the most popular in history.
What is it about the Philharmonic and the city itself that’s special to you?
It’s an amazing city; it’s perhaps the most creative city I’ve ever experienced. It’s filled with music and every Friday night if you walk down the street almost anywhere you can hear a live band playing. There is nowhere else where you can see that. The spirit of the people is very open minded and passionate. In that sense it’s quite close to the mentality in St Petersburg. People have the habit of helping each other because the city in the last decade was almost in constant crisis. People think it’s normal to help their neighbour because the next morning, you might need help.
It’s a city that really feels like a family and it’s the same with the Philharmonic. They are looking for their excellence on a day-by-day basis, with improvements in musical skills and in development. We are so glad that the hall is being refurbished and we have opened the main auditorium. It’s like a family between the orchestra, society, conductors, and management. Everybody works together to make life better.
You mentioned improvement and changes to the Philharmonic. Is a constant sense of change and improvement within the building and orchestra itself something that excites you?
For me stagnation is not acceptable. There needs to be progress all the time and I’m trying to avoid complacency in the band as much as possible so we are always looking at where we can do things better. Actually the city itself over the last eight or nine years has improved a lot, especially centrally and now the area around Hope Street is developing with so many new buildings. I think the city is on the way up. It’s not easy due to the economic situation but everybody’s trying.
You trained with a lot of very well-respected musicians. Is there anybody who particularly stands out as an inspiration for you?
I have many, from Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein to Salonen and Jansons. There are so many great musicians and conductors and you learn from everyone. What I was trying to do by visiting a lot of rehearsals and concerts in St Petersburg, in Mariinsky Theatre or in Philharmonic Hall, is to pick the best from every experience and every maestro. Often it’s important to see what’s bad, to see what you don’t need to have. This week I’ve been with the Chicago Symphony and I’ve learned a lot. I think being a conductor is a never-ending educational process.
You’ve done the orchestral side and opera as well. Do you have a preference?
I would like to have 50/50 but so far I’m doing a lot of orchestral concerts and less opera than I would like. Opera takes so much preparation time and having two orchestras as a chief conductor, it’s difficult to find enough time. Liverpool has a massive tradition for the Philharmonic and to listen to classical music but for opera, almost none.
Is that something that you would like to see in the city?
I would love to but it depends on the audience. I think it’s a matter of marketing, tradition and education. A lot of people think opera is for snobs but it isn’t, especially nowadays. The rules have changed so much and it’s much more democratic than it used to be.
You’ve done a lot of work with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and with young musicians. Is it important to keep classical music going and people enjoying it at a young age?
Of course, otherwise in 10 or 15 years we will have no audience. I’m doing as much as I can with young musicians and helping people to discover classical music. That’s why the project ‘In Harmony’ was organised in Liverpool. This project is so important and we’re so glad that it’s been extended for further years. It’s great for the community in West Everton, it’s unbelievable. You can see how the lives of the local people have improved.
Would you like to see it extended across the city?
I would like to see a scheme like that everywhere! In countries like Venezuela, for instance, or China similar projects are extended to almost state level and in schools. It’s like in a football club where you have your academy and hope that it’ll produce magnificent players.
Vasily Petrenko will conduct an evening of musical entertainment to mark the organisation’s milestone anniversary on 12 March when Liverpool Philharmonic: Celebrating 175 Years takes place at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. For tickets visit www.liverpoolphil.com
by Sophie Lockett