Somewhere in the depths of the internet lies a photo of Vasily Petrenko with a wad of £5 notes, posing next to a bin. It was part of the Liverpool Echo’s “Be A Binner, Not A Sinner” campaign to clean up Liverpool and improve its reputation, after the writer Bill Bryson infamously arrived in the city to find they were having, in his words, “a festival of litter.” The Echo would give £5 to anyone found putting their rubbish into public litter bins; on one occasion, Petrenko joined them to hand out the cash. “I’m not sure it was successful,” Petrenko notes today. (A 2022 report found that the city had three times more litter than the national average.)
In his time as the Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Petrenko threw himself into musical and civic life in Liverpool, and was garlanded for it, receiving the city’s “Honorary Scouser” award in 2009, and becoming a Citizen of Honour seven years later. I attended one of his victory lap concerts in 2021, as the RLPO bade a passionate farewell to their adopted son. “The special feeling of orchestra, conductor and city in sync was certainly on show this evening,” I wrote at the time.
In 2021, Petrenko left to become Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) in London. We meet near his new-ish home in West Hampstead, an affluent area of northwest London. It is the school holidays, and Petrenko has more time than I think either he or I realize. What we are meant to be talking about—the RPO’s upcoming semi-staged performance of “Iolanta”, the late Tchaikovsky opera rarely performed in the UK—largely gets lost amid the things he really wants to talk about.
The role of the conductor in society is discussed regularly, but less so how the conductor perceives that society. We spoke about British and European values, when (if ever) he might return to Russia, and water taps.
VAN: The city of Liverpool welcomes the conductor of its orchestra as a sort of civic leader, as opposed to a music director who turns up a couple of times a week and conducts some concerts. It’s a role that goes beyond the concert hall.
Vasily Petrenko: It’s important anywhere you are; of course, you have to be professional on the podium when you rehearse or when they perform, but there’s a social aspect too. It’s an essential question: Why we are there, and what we are doing for the community? Concerts are concerts; OK, the people are coming, and they are enjoying it. But then, what are we doing in wider terms? What are we doing for schools, for education, for deprived people, for mental health, for everything else? I think a lot of orchestras are improving, but there’s still a lot of improvement to be done.
[In Liverpool] we started so many programs. Together with the NHS, musicians were going to the prisons—to the strict prisons—and were teaching someone imprisoned for maybe three life terms how to play the flute. (They don’t have a chance to be released, because their crimes are big. Their behavior internally in the prison was so much improved—at least that’s what the officials were saying.)
Or In Harmony, which improved the whole area: We’re performing for the people, open air concerts, festivals, all sorts of things. Ultimately, we are there to make the life of locals better.
But in your view, it’s the conductor who leads all of this, as opposed to the Learning and Participation team?
Well, not just the conductor. But of course, you can implement a lot of things, and a lot of those ideas started from my impulse, let’s put it this way. Of course you need a team, you won’t be able to do it without a team.
In a way, this is much more difficult in London. Liverpool: one city, one orchestra, and everybody feels this identity. [In London] at some point there [were] 12 orchestras; now I think it’s a bit less, but still. Where will you identify yourself? Will you aim for Camden, or will you try to get to the broader city of Westminster? It’s not just competition; it’s exactly how you make this identity.
In that sense, LSO is in a better position, because they at least have the almost permanent hall—Barbican plus [LSO] St Luke’s, so they have this place where, if you go there for classical concerts, most of the time you listen to them. Even with all these pros and cons of the hall, they have this identity. Plus they’re also supported by the City of London, much more than by the federal government.
The others—Philharmonia, London Philharmonic Orchestra, RPO—we never rehearse in the Royal Festival Hall. [It’s] just for dress rehearsals. We rehearse around [the city]. In these two years, I’ve been in Watford, in Woolwich, Blackheath, Croydon, wherever we can. That does not give identity to the place. Plus, Royal Festival Hall is run by a separate team of managers, and especially now, they’re not so interested [in giving] this identity to you.
So what would make it better?
I can tell you what will make London better, definitely: to build a new and good concert hall, because none of the halls [are] good, that’s a problem. Look [at] any big city: you name any capital of Europe, each one of them has a great concert hall for classical music. London? No, I’m sorry, just no.
Plans for a £288m Centre for Music, championed by Simon Rattle upon his return to the London Symphony Orchestra as music director, were officially scrapped in 2021 by the City of London Corporation, citing the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s a chance in Wimbledon with Frank Gehry. There’s a chance for another concert hall in another part of London; how much of that will be coming through, that’s another question.
Especially at the moment…
Now unfortunately, I have to say all the policies of UK governments are very short-sighted. It’s not a secret that one pound invested in culture brings six pounds revenue.
In 2020, a report by the Centre for Economic and Business Research stated that, in the UK, “the Arts and Culture sector has faced a significant loss of Gross Value Added since the outset of lockdown.”
It’s one of the most profitable things, but it’s not a short-term investment. It’s a long-term investment: You have to invest for five to 10 years, and then you get all this revenue. That’s already been proven. However, they prefer to spend on their arms, munitions, missiles, submarines, and social programs such as benefits, which [are] good for the election next week, but it’s not good for society.
This identity is very important. It’s the same problem which unfortunately, Europe—us, as a continent—is facing now. What are European values? It’s the things which they are just starting to talk about but it’s so difficult and toxic in many ways that people try not to talk about it. Everyone says we are protecting European cultures in current conflicts: Israeli-Palestinian, Russia-Ukraine. What are the values? Define them? Just define them?
This is one of a handful of times in the interview where I’m not sure whether Petrenko is riffing rhetorically, or asking me to define these terms.
I mean, there are cultural values, there are architectural values, there’s a big gulf of religious values, which—historical. Plus there’s the values in the style of life: British style of life, German style of life, French style of life, whatever style of life.
Now if you look into style of life, it’s vanishing. All these theories about diversity and inclusivity are done in a very wrong way. It’s not that we have to adjust, it’s that the others have to adjust. The people who are coming… We’ve started talking in Europe, finally, about the problems with immigrants, which is a massive problem. Here, it’s not that bad in England compared to the other countries. But in other countries, if someone comes into the country, he or she needs to accept its rules, its regulations, learn the language, and live according to the place where they arrived, not opposite. It’s not that the place where they arrive has to accept the rules and regulations of someone who came from very far away. It’s nothing to do with discrimination, not at all. It’s just how to make people accept European values, and there’s so many of them that are not accepting. That’s why the problem is to get [people] into all the different things, and the role of culture can be pivotal in that. It’s tricky.
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Is there an argument for welcoming others, and celebrating them as equal? With the Arts Council, we have seen a general widening of arts funding, away from what in your terms might be deemed “traditional European” forms, like classical music, opera, and theater.
This is fine, but that should be an expansion of an artistic program. It’s not because you cut and trim your core values. And that’s done; that way of trimming. They are not bringing and not organizing something extra; they’re rerouting the money from traditional projects into that.
I can understand it more along those lines. So yours is an argument for massive expansion and inclusion, as opposed to cutting things, and putting funding into other places?
That’s for the whole society, the task for Europe, for the UK: To make all the people who [are] coming, to work. To make all the people who are coming with their unique backgrounds be part of British society. It’s not that Britain becomes part of Indian society.
You lived in Liverpool, now you’re living in London. Along similar lines: Do you feel you have to be rooted in a place in order to really connect with an orchestra?
It’s better for any music director to live in the place. Normally [that’s how it works], because you live in the place that you are.
You have to be part of a community. But that’s coming back to what we were talking about. Of course, you have to respect all the different backgrounds of people who are coming, and I think the main role for the orchestra in any community is to do what we do best.
And in your view, the thing they do best is…?
Performing concerts at the best level, mainly of the core classical repertoire. I’m not saying that they should play it all the time, but that should be the backbone of everything. [We shouldn’t play] play two classical repertoire [concerts], seven pop concerts, and 27 events of music from around the world which nobody knows and nobody does.
That is a criticism that could have been leveled at the RPO in the recent past.
No, the RPO is very versatile in many ways. I think the balance has shifted a little bit; we started to do more ambitious projects in the Albert Hall, the season outside of the Proms: Mahler 2,3, 8 in one season, British oratorios in another, also this year with “Iolanta” and “Nutcracker,” with the Wagner concert, the Verdi Requiem. Plus on top of that we made very thematically linked concerts in the Royal Festival Hall.
But also, we’re going to Brent for the projects with children, we’re doing various open-air concerts, [of the film music to] “Harry Potter,” and they’re also very important. I would see it as a sort of staircase. So, if you want the first step to meet the orchestra, it’s either at the school concerts, or at these “Harry Potter” shows where you’re coming for the story rather than for the orchestra. If you’re interested in it, then you may come to the next step, which will be probably slightly more pop-ish repertoire. And if you’re still interested, then you can go the classical [music]. This ladder is actually endless because there’s some gurus who are coming for Stockhausen only.
One thing I found in Liverpool, on a sonic level, was a particular sound that was the Liverpool Phil and Petrenko as you might get with the Hallé Orchestra and Mark Elder, that comes from a structural level of having a music director who is there for a while. With the rise of the guest conductor—who flies in, does two rehearsals and a concert, flies out—and more of a carousel of music directors going in and out of places, do you think that individual sound is lessening these days?
I think every orchestra is very unique. There are orchestras who have such a massive tradition of their own sound, like Concertgebouw, that they’ll maintain it. I spoke to Mariss [Jansons] when he was alive and he was saying to me, “I will probably slightly amend things, maybe just in the direction of a bit more transparency, but I won’t be there to try to make me instead of Concertgebouw.” There are some orchestras who do not have such a long tradition, or have had 10 or 15 years without such big guidance. There, it is more on the side of the music director to influence such things.
Regarding guest conductors versus music directors, if you have a good contact with the orchestra, if you have this love story that goes on as a love story, then you need to talk less and less about the technical elements, and you’re able to expand more into the music: Not what are the notes, but what is behind the notes; what was the historical context the composer was facing. To me, it’s staggering how many musicians—I’m not blaming them, it’s because they are underpaid and they have to work very hard—but they quite often come to the first rehearsal without any idea what they are playing. Musically, they’re prepared, but who is this composer? What is he doing? Where was he or she living? What was happening?
When you come to any orchestra as a music director, you see things that you have to fix; usually that’s the way. And any orchestra can improve endlessly in this process. Quite often, it’s so many of them that you have to compromise; rehearsal time is very scarce. It’s just figuring out which are more critical, then probably next time, you see those things are already fixed.
In 2022, you made a statement about Russia: “I have decided to suspend my work in Russia, including all future commitments as Artistic Director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeni Svetlanov’, until peace has been restored.” Has anything with your stance changed in that time?
Well, I still hope to come back once peace will be restored, because I think it’s the role of culture to dive in. Ukraine and Russia will not go to [different] planets, they’ll still need to be neighbors. And after such conflicts, there will be a huge amount of hate. It’s inevitable. I’m half-Russian, half-Ukrainian. Part of my family lives in Kyiv, my father still lives in St. Petersburg. We all [have good relationships], a good connection, nothing has changed between us in terms of hate or anything. However, there’s many, many people in many families whom I know who have gone so wildly into opposite directions. So the role of culture will be to stitch those countries together at least to a certain extent. That’s why I hope that I will be allowed to go to Ukraine [and] to go to Russia and to perform in both of those countries.
In terms of an official role, unfortunately, at one point in 2022, I was forced to write a letter of resignation from that orchestra, officially, for the Ministry of Culture.
I didn’t realize it was a resignation.
At first I was temporarily balancing my presence. After that, in about two or three months, I [realized] that if I don’t do it, there might be repercussions for the [State Academic Symphony Orchestra], for the musicians. For me, ultimately, the interests of musicians in the orchestra are my priority, always were and always will be. For that, I wouldn’t say I was forced to leave, but there was no other option but to leave. The orchestra does not have a music director so far, they still work without any.
I think life for many of the musicians is difficult because what you hear and see around the concerts [is] quite different from what you think, and you can tolerate that only to a certain extent. You cannot openly say what you really think because you might be imprisoned. But also keeping silent all the time [is] really difficult. Any art, especially music, you have to be humble, you have to be honest with yourself and with your music. Once you become dishonest, then usually your music suffers. For that, if you think something completely opposite to what is officially said, then it’s difficult, and it’s mounting for musicians.
Can music play an active role in reconciliation?
This is for sure.
Can it do that?
That was the case in Germany after 1945. At first, nobody wanted even to hear about Germans, and then gradually over 10 years because of the constant investment in art and rebuilding the country, that started to bridge the gaps between Germans and every other country.
You go to the concert hall, you listen to the concert, do you care who sits next to you? What nationality, what gender, what religion is this person? It doesn’t matter, because you will ultimately share the same emotions. And this is where the power of music—you’re bringing similar emotions to the people, and those similar emotions unite people. That’s a very powerful tool. How and when it will be realized: I wish it will be soon, but it has to be done.
I haven’t had any other choice than to leave the orchestra [in St. Petersburg]. I feel guilty for the orchestra, for the musicians, of course. But I also feel that, just the normal audience in Moscow, what is their guilt? They can’t come to my concert, they can’t listen to it. So in a way, I feel like I’m obliged [to go back] because it’s not the President, it’s not the government, it’s just a simple people.
You’re performing a semi-staged version of “Iolanta,” something that’s particularly in vogue in the UK. If you do a semi-staged version, obviously it changes the dynamics and the particular relations between the elements that the composer wanted—is it healthy that we’re doing so much semi-staged opera?
What we’re aiming to—I think the Albert Hall is a concern in terms of theater. There were some opera projects fully staged [there], but very few of them were done at the very highest level in terms of staging. What we’re aiming to do is use the new modern technologies—and I’ve been in those demonstration rooms. They allow you to create illusions. Basically, the way new computer, laser, and visual technologies [work], you will see from the audience a wall or set or decoration, while it doesn’t exist, but you will truly believe that this is a wall. It’s already in use for very expensive musicals. So you see the person will have a sword in his or her hand but there’s actually no sword, it’s all done through visual additions to it.
Did you hear about the AR “Parsifal” at Bayreuth this year, with the goggles?
Yeah, but that loses a little bit, to me, the unity of the public. You sit in the goggles, and you’re in your own world. You don’t see the others and you don’t feel their reaction enough. This is why I think there might be better ways to do that.
You miss the collective feeling of being in a concert if you’re just in your own little world.
This is ultimately what we started with: We have to find unity in the world, we have to find unity in society.
There’s a lot of things; look, even because of this Jewish-Palestinian conflict, there’s recommendations for many Jewish people, even in London, to not go to any special major areas. This is not something that should exist.
But if we properly embrace the diversity of both peoples living in harmony and in their distinct ways, in which they can share some of their things and have other things separate, then surely…
But what will we do with the people who does not want to embrace diversity? Diversity and “embracement” goes both ways. You embrace someone, someone embraces you. So far it’s a lot of, you embrace someone, and someone does not do anything for you.
I think we disagree.
But you can see it here on the streets: Quite a lot of that happens. If you just walk around the streets, you can see that. Efforts need to be done from both sides, and that’s what I’m saying. You should not cut support for your traditional values; you should extend support.
And extend support for everybody and not just cut?
Exactly. It should not be at the expense of someone. There will always be cases of mismanagement and targeting in certain organizations in culture. That doesn’t mean that you should stop supporting them.
Forgive me, I’m still not 100 percent [about your argument]. I do understand where you’re coming from, but I’m not quite there on the contention that [funding for classical music] has been cut in favor of other projects.
It’s open information: Arts Council budgets for this coming year compared to the previous year, you can see it.
So more NPOs (National Portfolio Organizations) have been awarded generally to a wider range of people but also from all over the country. The way I interpreted it was to divest money from within London to elsewhere, a general opening up and extending diversity in terms of race and region…
Hmm… not quite.
Whether or not that actually happened is another question. But there was a general push towards diversity in multiple different aspects, in terms of location for example.
But look, even currently, the BBC, they just cut effectively the orchestra, they tried to cut completely the choir, for what were they expanded? There’s a new gospel group organized, that’s true. I’m not saying they should not organize [the gospel group], absolutely fine, but you should not have to cut what you have. It’s like you think that you need to have a sixth finger, and you cut your leg.
You talk about diversity? I’m an immigrant here. I’m officially British, OK, I came from elsewhere. I never was trying to live with my Russian roots. I came here, I adopted the Scouse way of life to a certain extent. And then, when I’m in Great Britain, I try to live as much according to British rules as I can.
But your interpretation of what British values are is constantly shifting. Who is going to be the person who says, “this is this”?
Exactly, I’m saying that, to cast the values is something very difficult, but that has to be done. If you ask, what are the British values of life right now, where will you go?
I mean, they’re in flux, and are being redefined by successive governments. I dunno, I’d hope: tolerance.
Tolerance? It’s not quite a value. This is something that can be qualified everywhere. What defines Great Britain as Great Britain, nowadays?
I don’t know, you go.
Everyone needs to raise this question. For me, [it’s] heritage of the royal family, these traditional things. (This does not have implementation currently, only a few appearances here and there.) For me, this is politeness and respect of society. It’s not tolerance. Tolerance is a different thing, tolerance is neutral, politeness is…
It’s politeness and respect. And it’s many small things [too]: real ales, British—English—breakfast, the architecture of London. It’s not just cultural heritage, but that’s how it’s done.
The way people travel, the way people behave in their homes… (They’re one of the most traveling nations.) There’s separate taps.
Taps, for water.
In terms of culture, it’s not that I’m against money being given to some diverse projects. It’s that they should be as an expansion, not at the expense of traditional values.
Look, musicians are so underpaid in this country at the moment. At the moment, musicians and orchestras in the UK seem less paid—versus living costs—than all of Europe probably. It’s definitely less than any neighboring countries. Norway, Iceland, they have better pay. And this is something I think has to be changed.
It’s one of the greatest British exports: its culture, the orchestras from London. Everybody who’s coming to the concerts, either LSO, LPO, RPO, Philharmonia, somewhere in Europe, they know that that will be the best possible quality. And this is something that will need to be supported. Not just that, but everything else as well.
Will anything change if and when the Labour Party gets in as the next government?
I don’t know, to be honest. To me, it’s not a secret. To me, the main task, for the politicians, will be how to make the majority of the people who are not working currently, work. For the politicians: How to make the system fair to them in a way that they have to work. They have to be part of society and not just sitting at home, waiting for benefits to come. How to do that? I’m not a politician, it’s very difficult to run an economy in that direction. ¶
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