Interview: Vasily Petrenko is ready for a change in tempo after London move

Vassily Petrenko's future lies with London's Royal Philharmonic but he will be maintaining his current links with orchestras in Liverpool and Oslo. Picture: Contributed
Vassily Petrenko's future lies with London's Royal Philharmonic but he will be maintaining his current links with orchestras in Liverpool and Oslo. Picture: Contributed
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Vasily Petrenko is the darling of Oslo audiences, but he explains to Ken Walton why he is uprooting and taking his talents to London

When I met Vasily Petrenko in his office at the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert hall in May, his manner seemed more muted than in our previous interview several years ago.

A week or so later, the reason became clear. Unable to say so at the time, the 42-year-old was in the throes of negotiations that were to lead to June’s announcement he would be stepping down as music director of the Oslo orchestra after its centenary celebrations in 2020, to take up a new post as music director of the recently troubled Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) in London.

Listening to him conduct Prokofiev’s enigmatic Sixth Symphony in the packed Oslo Hall that evening, there was certainly no inkling that Petrenko was about to hand in his notice. It’s the work Edinburgh audiences will hear at the Usher Hall on Thursday, alongside Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and songs sung by Norwegian lyric soprano Lise Davidsen. The Prokofiev was sensational, a performance of gripping intensity and quizzical curiosity that drew Petrenko’s faithful following instantly to their feet – a regular occurrence, apparently.

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Moreover, there is a tangible connection between Petrenko and the Oslo players carefully nurtured during his five years in post. “We’ve done great recordings of Scriabin and Strauss, we’re playing to full houses like tonight, and we’ve been broadening our public, making more concerts around Norway and abroad.”

Most importantly, he adds: “I sense in the players a deeper understanding of how they share in the music. That has improved since you and I last spoke.”

So why leave, when the going is so artistically good? It turns out there are a number of factors. “First is the delay with the planned new concert hall,” Petrenko reveals. It’s a project that has occupied his thoughts from day one in the Oslo job. And true enough, not only is the 1970s’ Oslo Concert Hall very much of its time – more bland design than acoustical miracle – but it’s hard not to compare its datedness to the space-age wow factor of the breathtaking harbourside Oslo Opera House where, says Petrenko, many guest orchestras are now choosing to play. “I don’t see the city building the new concert hall any time soon.”

Nor is he confident what will happen anytime soon after the 100th anniversary season. “It’s not very clear. I’ve tried to make things happen, but it’s quite difficult.”

Recent investment in a new city library and the once-threatened Munch Museum have not helped advance the concert hall case.

Petrenko also has personal reasons for going. “It would be really difficult to handle three orchestras at once,” he believes, referring to his current musical directorships with Oslo and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Interestingly, he is also stepping down in Liverpool, though he will maintain his long connection there by becoming conductor laureate. “It is not a full departure from either orchestra. I don’t want to shut the door and go away, but will come back as a guest whenever I can.” He is also keen to expand his work in opera.

Foremost in his mind, though, is the opportunity to give London a go. That applies as much to his family life – he, his wife and two children currently live in Cheshire – as to his professional ambitions.

“My kids will be seven and 17 by the time I’m there, which is a good time to be choosing either school or university. London gives more opportunities for education. Yes, I have concerns about London and the pace of life, which is considerably more intensive than Oslo or Liverpool. But we have to give it a go.”

When Petrenko starts to speak of plans for the RPO, you begin to hear that same explosive enthusiasm that coloured his earlier Oslo years. He will be taking on an orchestra whose fortunes and reputation have dipped since the glory days of the 1960s and 70s. He succeeds octogenarian Charles Dutoit, who resigned suddenly in January 2018 amid “allegations of historical sexual assault”.

He knows he has a job to do, and that fires him up. “The orchestra has huge potential artistically,” he believes. “We’ve already played magnificent concerts in the Royal Albert Hall. I’ve never heard them play badly, so it’s important that we can work together and share ideas.”

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But it will involve hard work, he warns. “I have insisted on three rehearsals plus general for each programme. Orchestras just do not play well automatically; you have to rehearse. We’ll be planning lots of new repertoire, much of which will be fresh to RPO audiences.”

Petrenko will be present for at least ten weeks each season, but it is the shape of those seasons, and where they take place, that will define what he believes will be a new future for the orchestra. His first season in 2021 coincides with the RPO’s 75th anniversary. From the outset, followers will see notable changes.

“In the future the RPO will be more focused on core classical programmes in London. There will be more season concerts in the Royal Albert Hall – we’ve already planned Mahler symphonies there – and at the Royal Festival Hall, and a few in the Cadogan Hall where, given its size, we will concentrate more on smaller Classical repertoire.”

It’s a tall order for Petrenko, which he should be well up for. The experience he has gained with the Oslo Phil, both its triumphs and its frustrations, together with his 15 years pioneering community development in Liverpool, will stand him in good stead, he says. “The more you do, the more experience you get. There will be new things to learn, but I’m ready for that.”

If Thursday’s Prokofiev is comparable to the one I heard in Oslo, Edinburgh’s audience is in for a rare treat. He has made the Oslo Phil his own. And any RPO fans, looking for a taster of what is to come in London, should be getting very excited.

• Vasily Petrenko conducts music by Prokofiev and Strauss with the Oslo Philharmonic, Thursday 16 August at the Usher Hall.