Young-Jin Hur in conversation with Vasily Petrenko

Vasily Petrenko, © Svetlana Tarlova

The world is complex in its embrace of seeming opposites. There is joy in sad music; individual preferences coexist with societal norms; natural tendencies may complement acquired processes. The world is complex, but it is simple in its consistent presence of contradictions. This complexity also holds true for life’s challenges. The truism that bearing difficulties strengthens the self is elevated to metaphysical heights in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. In the realm of music, Igor Stravinsky viewed that ‘the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.’ A time of difficulty and limitation, thus, seems also a story of hope.

For classical music, this intricacy of hope is ever more relevant this year, with COVID-19 having caused unprecedented financial and psychological distress across the arts industry. In encountering these challenging times, one can ask what the key challenges are and how the classical music world can move forward. I addressed these questions to Vasily Petrenko, chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and upcoming music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Vasily Petrenko’s latest recording with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring works by Rimsky-Korsakov, is now available on LAWO Classics (for more information click here).

Notwithstanding the generally regrettable sentiments concerning the COVID-19 situation, it was encouraging to sense an unmistakable optimism in Petrenko’s words. ‘I think we have to be creative in difficult times’, he says, as he proceeds to present how the classical music industry is finding ways to cope. Perhaps this underlying spirit of hope reflects what music is ultimately about. After all, it is in the essence of music that it – in the words of Petrenko – ‘brings optimism… keeps us united and integrated.’

[Thank you to Young-Jin Hur for permission to republish this interview that has been slightly adapted for Seen and Heard International but can be found in its original version if you click here.]

Young-Jin Hur (YH): Hello Mr Petrenko, it’s a great pleasure to have you as a guest. How are you today?

Vasily Petrenko (VP): Good afternoon. I’ve had a good day. The morning started quite early. I brought my daughter to school and I did some jogging. I then worked on a music project.

YH: Have you always been an avid jogger or is this something you picked up recently?

VP: I’ve jogged consistently over the past ten to fifteen years. During the present quarantine, I’ve been jogging every day, as I have a bit more time than usual, probably [VP smiles]. Jogging is a good way to refresh the mind. It gives you energy. I’m not going for very long distances – I jog usually between 20 to 40 minutes.

YH: I agree that jogging freshens up the mind. Generally, are you and your family coping well during the COVID-19 quarantine?

VP: Overall, we’re all fine. This is the first time in around fifteen years that I can spend three consecutive months at home. There’s a lot of things to do when at home – housekeeping, repairing and painting furniture. There are also these online lockdown talks I’ve started doing. There’s a lot of virtual activities with various orchestras. And now, I am preparing another project with the European Union Youth Orchestra for something that will happen over the next few months. I’ve also been editing recordings. I like to keep myself busy. On the other hand, I grew my beard, I grew some tomatoes, and took care of the garden. So there were things I did that I was never able to do in the usual schedule.

YH: You’ve mentioned that you have some musical projects going on. These projects must be quite different from the usual ones you do, given the COVID-19 situation. 

VP: In many ways, they are different. Some projects are directly related to the current crisis, with the obvious one being about us having gathered a number of orchestral conductors to sign a letter addressed to the government for assistance. This letter was published recently in The Times newspaper. We are grateful for all the support that the government is giving to the citizens of the UK. However, I think for the arts sector, we have to be more specific and flexible in order to help various orchestras and related organisations survive.

YH: What are some of the most prominent difficulties the arts sector is facing due to COVID-19?

VP: While the entire country is affected by a grave financial situation, the arts sector is hit most severely. As long as social-distancing is in place, the economic model that the arts sector must adopt is very difficult. Over the past few decades, the orchestras and general performing arts organisations had 40-90% of their budget covered via the box office. If you keep social-distancing of two meters or even one meter, this only allows you to fill at most 30% of maximum audience capacity. This gap between 30% and, in the case of Liverpool, 90%, is a huge gap. So performances are not economically viable because a lot of money is spent with little profit. So I wanted to flag the situation up to the government and ask for help. Perhaps the financial gap between the allowed 30% of attendance capacity and average attendance from the previous season may be covered by the government. Maybe there are some other models. I am not an economist but I believe certain things can happen.

For musicians, some of them are furloughed, but some of them are freelance musicians who have no support. The fact that musicians already have low salaries does not help. Musicians, especially in London, are facing a difficult time.

YH: Are you also concerned that COVID-19 may affect the quality of music-making?

VP: The quality of music-making will definitely be affected. There will be musicians who haven’t played for half a year. The situation is comparable to sports. Once you stop training, you inevitably lose some of your qualities. For musicians, I hope this quality drop is less severe than that of sportspeople.

The social-distancing rule between musicians will likewise make things difficult. Orchestral music from the last 300-400 years is not written for such physically distanced settings. So spreading the musicians apart will lead to problems in intonation, synchronisation, and in many technical aspects of orchestral music-making.

While everyone will be facing difficult years ahead economically, socially, and psychologically, it’s important to notice historical parallels. Whenever there were grave crises in the UK, such as the two world wars, the arts immediately following these periods played a vital role in bringing society together in lifting up spirits. Music brings optimism.

YH: The historical parallel you mention is fascinating, indeed. I realise that great art was often created following big social unrests. This is the case for films, visual arts, and literature. Do you imagine there would be some notable musical developments following the crisis? In asking this question, I’m extending beyond music playing per se, thinking about the creation of music itself.

VP: I think every facet in the arts will be affected. Already, we can see that digital creativity and digital performances are being enhanced throughout the lockdown. While digital performances can in no way follow the emotional, social, and general experiential impacts of live performances, maybe this gap will be reduced through advanced virtual reality.

Online education started to progress rapidly, too. That said, there are some dangers regarding online education. On the one hand, online education allows access to education for people in remote territories. This is a positive thing. On the other hand, certain social skills can only be gained by studying physically in class together with other pupils. These social skills play vital roles later in life.

I think we have to be creative in difficult times like these. I think this summer, a lot of small ensembles will be created. I also spoke to several composers who are creating pieces that are deliberately designed for musicians being spread around a hall. So there will be something new.

Once the virus is contained, I am curious how much of 2019 will remain in 2020 and beyond. I can see through my ongoing lockdown talks that there’s a lot of hunger for social events… for concerts, for exhibitions, and for restaurants, too. Without culture and without socialising, humans will be animals. Culture is what keeps us united and integrated

YH: In this dire situation, there seems to be plenty of reason for optimism. If I look at your lockdown talks that you’ve so wonderfully conducted over the past few weeks, I can see that you’ve spoken to many non-musicians and non-artists. As a musician, how’s it like to speak about COVID-19 with such a wide range of people?

VP: The initial idea was to explore the effects of the virus in different industries. That’s why I’ve interviewed people working in airlines, hospitality, museums, businesses, and the medical sector. For me, it has always been interesting to uncover what is happening in different industries through conversations. In many ways, musicians quite often live in a social cocoon – they live in a social bubble of mostly musicians or music-related people. Some musicians have hobbies, but interactions with people outside of music is fairly limited. As for me, I was always interested in reaching out. I have to say that there were many more whom I contacted for my interview series. However, many politely declined because they did not want to go public just yet on certain coronavirus-related decisions.

YH: The ‘social cocoon’ you mentioned in fascinating. I am curious about what makes someone reach out to people outside his/her field.

VP: I think conductors are probably the most versatile of musicians in terms of social contact because we have to always talk to many people as part of our job. We don’t only talk to musicians in the orchestra and managers, but we also talk to sponsors and philanthropists. This involves talking to people from all types of backgrounds. Being a conductor is not just about musical skills. A conductor should have good psychological and social skills to engage with various people. Basically, a conductor should know how to make a team and lead it. Before we started recording our interview today, we talked about Liverpool FC. In many ways, a conductor is like a football manager. Good football managers know how to bring talented and ambitious individuals together and convince them there is a goal to achieve. Football managers also talk to many people outside of the team to further help the team achieve their objectives.

YH: Regarding your lockdown talks experiences, could one say that conducting an interview is somewhat like conducting an orchestra? After all, both activities use the same word, “conducting” and require sensible social skills. [both laugh]

VP: During my lockdown interviews, my hands sometimes move by themselves as if I’m directing an orchestra, so maybe conducting an interview is like conducting an orchestra. Perhaps making hand gestures is a natural thing when interacting with people, generally. Either way, I can see some parallels between the two activities. When you talk to someone, you have to find the right tone of the conversation. For a successful interview, it is important to find a way to make people honest and to interact with them and reach a common key. Because everyone is different, it’s important to be flexible and ask the right questions in the right way without offending them or making them feel uncomfortable.

YH: Because people are so different, perhaps it is an important interview preparation to study the other person before an interview?

VP: Yes. As for the present interview, I looked you up before our conversation. I found that you’ve written for Bachtrack. So I read about you, and I have to say I was quite impressed with how many things you have done despite your young age.

YH: Oh, thank you [YH laughs]. I do what instinctively feels most natural to me. I see where life takes me. I’d now like to ask you a few questions regarding your conducting appointments. You’ll soon be leaving the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra to start a new life at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Do you feel you’ve achieved everything that you wanted to achieve in Liverpool and Oslo?

VP: As with many, if not all, conductors, I am a perfectionist. So I will never feel I achieved everything I aimed to achieve. It’s been like this my entire life. I can still see areas where I could have achieved more. Depending on the situation, I will work on these over the next months or years. While you’ve described my new appointment at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as ‘a new life’, I wouldn’t call it that way. I’m still keeping strong connections with both orchestras in Liverpool and in Oslo. In Liverpool, I will become Conductor Laureate and I will be returning to Oslo for two to three weeks per year.

The connections I have built up over the past years in Liverpool and Oslo are very important. My connections with the orchestras, needless to say, are important. However, it is also about how we have worked hard to connect the orchestras with the public. To me, the biggest pride I have regarding my achievements in Liverpool, for example, is not so much about all the musical accolades, but the way how the orchestra started to embrace the public. I am proud of how many people have started coming to the concert hall recently and how much our education programmes have developed. I hope to achieve similar things in London over the next few years.

YH: I hope so, too. There must also be a sense of sadness and nostalgia that you will no longer live in Liverpool, a place that has become something of a second home to you.

VP: You know, I can tell you this. Around a year and a half ago, I met Angela Merkel in a summit. That was about the time she decided to no longer be involved in the next chancellor position. She told me and the others there that she felt like the political party she’s led for a long time was like a baby, but that the baby is now 18 years old. ‘It is probably time to let the baby have its own life’, she said. This was a nice way of describing why she’ll not be further involved in these elections. In many ways, I share this sentiment. Orchestras involve similar family-like relations. However, I wouldn’t call the orchestral musicians ‘my babies’, especially because a lot of people in the orchestras are also older than me. [both laugh]

VP: I think there is a time when you have to go to the next chapter. This is also probably when you feel that bringing in another conductor – who will have new approaches and new ideas – may improve and enrich your orchestras even further.

YH: In many ways, you are passing on your orchestras to someone else. You will be passing the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra to the young Klaus Mäkelä. Do you have any thoughts about him?

VP: To be honest, I haven’t met him yet. I was meant to see him over the spring around my final concerts in Oslo, but that didn’t happen due to coronavirus. Hopefully, I will meet him at some point next year. From what I’ve heard from the orchestra, there’s a lot of potential in him and it’s almost as if the orchestra would like to grow together with him. Whether he will realise his potential or not, only time will show. A danger is to take too many jobs too early, which can burn you out. I hope this won’t happen to him. I hope there will be a very fruitful and long collaboration in Oslo.

Here in Liverpool, Domingo Hindoyan will succeed me – while he is the same age as me, he started his career as a conductor much later than me. So in professional conducting terms, Domingo Hindoyan is also a relatively young conductor. I’m open to give advices to both conductors and let them know my viewpoints on things, for example, how the orchestras can be improved and how those improvements can be made easier.

Vasily Petrenko, © Mark McNulty

YH: And now, you have a new position of responsibility at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. What does it mean to be responsible?

VP: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is an orchestra that has an impressive touring record and a long history. So in terms of recordings, touring, and repertoire, I think they are, well, they were, at least prior to COVID-19, probably more versatile than both the Oslo or Liverpool orchestras. Their activities range from playing computer games music to playing contemporary music, playing Viennese waltzes of the Strauss family, and playing very serious symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner. So, for me, to prepare myself for all this and to design a diverse range of programmes is a large responsibility.

YH: What are some things you are looking forward to at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra?

VP: There are many exciting years ahead. For example, there’s the 75th anniversary of the orchestra coming up. There is a partnership with the Royal Albert Hall, where we were supposed to start a big Mahler symphonies series this year and perform some famous British oratorios. I don’t know how much of these plans will go ahead, unfortunately – it’s difficult to predict presently. But this Royal Albert Hall collaboration is an important long-term project because people often associate the hall with only the BBC Proms. During the main season, the hall is underused for classical music. Through this collaboration, I want to bring more classical music to the Royal Albert Hall during the main season, something that the management of the hall also looks forward to.

YH: As a conductor, how do you listen to music at home? I am interested in how your music listening habits or behaviours are different from the way non-musicians listen to music.

VP: Technically, I usually listen to music through Spotify and YouTube. But mentally, we are a little bit cursed. Any piece of music I listen to, I hear by the notes. I think this is the case for any conductor and for most musicians. Whenever you listen to a piece, you start analysing the piece – this happens instantly. I have absolute pitch, so I can hear exactly what notes each instrument are playing. And because nobody is perfect, I can hear if some notes are slightly off or if some instruments are not in time. This is the same in all kinds of music, be it classical music or pop music. The emotions come only afterwards. I say this entire process is a curse because it is difficult to directly access the emotional core of compositions. When I study a piece, I mostly read it without listening to it.

YH: Do you have a dedicated time whenever you study a piece?

VP: I wouldn’t say ‘dedicated time’. Whenever I can, I can just open up a score and read it.

YH: For you, what is it like to read a score?

VP: Reading a score is like reading a play. Imagine you’re reading a Shakespeare play. When you read a play silently, each character has an imaginary voice in your head. Similarly, when I read a score, I have imaginary sounds in my head. When reading a score, it is vital for a musician to have one’s own imaginary sound in one’s head. Otherwise, one is simply dictating someone else’s recording. Therefore, having these imaginations is very important.

YH: How do you negotiate between existing recordings and your own conducting?

VP: Listening to recordings is fine and I adore and admire so much recorded music from my colleagues and from conductors of the past. But I always try to figure out what I can pick out from these various recordings for my own interpretations. As long as I read the music first before I listen to recordings, it’s fine.

Considering an ideal sound is in the nature of conducting. You have an ideal sound and once you work with an orchestra via your hands, gestures, and even your aura, you project to them what you want to hear and you have an actual response from the orchestra. Most of the time, this initial response is nowhere near what you had in your mind. You somehow have to adapt yourself and adjust the sound of the orchestra to your ideal sound. It’s almost as if you’re living in three time-dimensions. You hear a sound in your mind, then in a split second you hear a sound from the orchestra, and you have to adjust your gestures to hear a difference in the next bars. This applies to any conductor. Conducting is rarely tiring for the hands but you have to use your brains very quickly.

YH: You’ve professed that you are a perfectionist and that because nobody is perfect, it’s difficult to achieve a perfect sound. When you conduct, when do you say enough is enough and move on?

VP: Never [pause]. I think any piece can be improved. There are endless ways to improve. I used to do around 120 concerts a year. If there are one or two occasions where I am satisfied with myself, that is a good year.

YH: When was the most recent occasion that you felt satisfied?

VP: It’s difficult to say. There was a very good Heldenleben in Oslo maybe several months ago. It’s not that I am dissatisfied with the orchestra – I am dissatisfied with myself. Those are two different things. The orchestras quite often play really well but you feel that you still can do something better than what you have done.

YH: As a final question, how do you want to be remembered in the future?

VP: I want to be remembered. It’s a big challenge for a conductor. As a composer, what you leave behind are manuscripts. And there will be more chances to be remembered as a composer because your pieces can be performed. But as a performer, whatever you do only stays in the memories of those who went to your concerts. These are relatively short memories. So after 50 years, if people remember you – obviously for the good reasons – then I think I’ll consider that to be mission accomplished.

YH: With this in mind, I hope that everything, or, well, at least one or two concerts per year will go superbly with you in London. You’re most welcome to the city. Thank you.

VP: Fantastic. Thanks a lot.

Young-Jin Hur @yjhur1885 © Where Cherries Ripen/Young-Jin Hur

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