Known for his exciting interpretations, his boyish charm and the fact he reversed the artistic and financial fortunes of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) within weeks of taking the podium, Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko
breathes new and democratic life into what can be an archaic world. 'The key is that we are all musicians,' he says of his interpretations. 'It’s not that I am a big maestro and they are my slaves. I’m about the piece, what’s behind the notes, but I accept ideas from the orchestra. The goal is to unite the players – it’s like being a football manager,' adds the Liverpool FC fan who plays five a side with the musicians. 'Every week,' he says of the regular game. 'That’s always on the agenda.'
Petrenko was born in today’s St Petersburg, in 1976. A talented student who medalled in maths and was training to be an Olympic swimmer, he eventually chose music, although he can’t remember why. 'I was very musical as a young boy; I remember singing in a choir at age four,' he recalls, saying that his parents probably made the ultimate choice. His mother sang with 'good rhythm but the tune was somewhere else,' and his engineer father played amateur jazz on cruise ships and in restaurants until Russia’s criminal element invaded their venues. 'There was rapid fire from Kalashnikovs,' says Petrenko. 'He decided that’s enough.' But they felt a competitive music school would suit their son’s extraordinary self-confidence. 'You didn’t try to bash the other kids with your knowledge and superiority,' he says. 'Everyone was a wunderkind.'
That title stuck. Having taken the helm at the RLPO at age 29, he won Gramophone’s Best Young Artist a year later; today a relatively seasoned 41, he continues to exude youthful energy as chief conductor of the RLPO and now Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as in a number of other posts throughout Europe. This China trip he leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme of Berlioz, Elgar and Rimsky-Korsakov, displaying once again his diversity, his passion for British music, and his memories of home. Enjoy this refreshing break from Beijing’s Strauss-heavy season.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s most popular work showcases his love of Eastern themes and his brilliance at orchestration. Scheherazade’s lush colour and exotic melodies allude to stories from The One Thousand and One Nights, the Persian, Indian and Arabic story collection that features tales of flying carpets, caves of treasure, sea voyages and princes turned wandering ascetics, as told by the clever heroine. But she had little choice. Burned by his wife’s infidelity, Sultan Shahryar began marrying virgins at night and executing wives in the morning. New bride Scheherazade outwits him, however, by spinning fascinating nightly yarns but saving the cliffhanger for the following day. By the time she hit story 1001, he was in love.
Rimsky-Korsakov purposely used vague titles for each section so listeners can imagine, rather than identify, the tale. He did concede that the growling bass was Shahryar giving orders whilst the recurring soaring solo violin is Scheherazade telling stories. The vivid sounds of the sea might be drawn from Rimsky-Korsakov’s experience as a naval officer, or that he reportedly was a synesthete who associated music with colours (E major was deep blue). Whatever the case, fans of programme (storytelling) music, evocative melodies and unforgettable solos will thrill to this colourful work.