Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
Not during shopping hours, mind, when the museums and galleries were heaving with visitors and the Tate’s compact Klimt show was dangerously overcrowded. But on a midweek evening, when Europe’s City of Culture should have been strutting its song and dance, there was not a play to be seen nor a concert to hear, nothing by way of live performance to while away the long summer night.
Custodians of the culture year assured me that this is all according to plan, that events are being ‘phased’ across 12 months and there are bound to be gaps. What’s more, the half-year returns are impressive with the museums up 24 percent and Liverpool 08 coming third on Google searches the morning after it hosted the Turner Prize. The visual arts are certainly doing their bit towards blowing the city’s trumpet.
Still, at the end of the year when the last footfall is counted and the budget shortfall paid off, the light to emerge from the Mersey Tunnel will be the restoration of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The Phil are back at the BBC Proms next week (1 Aug), out to erase a miserable period in which the country’s second-oldest concert society (est. 1840) seemed to be fading out on a sigh of weary programmes and dull conductors. The Arts Council had to pump in millions to pay off old deficits and the last chairman went swanning off to run Welsh Rugby.
Then Liverpool, as its footballers do when all seems lost, threw caution to the winds and struck lucky. Two years ago it took on a Russian conductor of 29 years old and no prior form. Since then Vasily Petrenko has set the town alight. His concerts are electrifying, the audience age has dropped by two decades and some of the new string players look barely out of school. Attendances are up 40 percent since he arrived.
When he walks down Hope Street, it’s all ‘Hiya, Vasily,’ and ‘how’s it going at the Phil, mate?’ If Liverpool FC get drawn against St Petersburg, as they did last season, sports editors call him for expert comment. He plays five-a-side with his musicians, is gregarious, softly-spoken and down to earth – in short, he’s the biggest Russian hit on Merseyside since Letter to Brezhnev and vodka mixers.
‘The people here are very close to Russians, in their patience and emotions,’ he explains to me over afternoon tea. ‘They are very open, very friendly. They have both had very bad times. Just to survive, it is necessary to support each other.’
Petrenko’s grandparents endured the siege of Leningrad; his parents grew up under communism. He is among the last to have enjoyed the elitist benefits of the Soviet education system, getting fast-tracked through specialist schools after being spotted singing in a choir from the age of four. ‘People around me were being trained to direct choruses in Siberia,’ he remembers. ‘There were 200 professional choirs in the country, now there are nine. Those times are over. Parents don’t want their kids to be musicians any more. They make more money as bricklayers, not to say bankers.’
His parents were supportive without being pushy. ‘My mother had good rhythm when she sang to me as a boy,’ he laughs, ‘but the melody was somewhere else. She could not sing in tune.’ His father trained as an engineer and played double-bass jazz in restaurants, until the mafia started shooting them out.
Vasily was unsure at first of his vocation. He took painting lessons and won medals at maths. At eleven, he was tipped to be an Olympic swimmer, ‘but you had to practise six days a week, it doesn’t allow you time for anything else. Swimming taught me, though, to be number one. The second place is a loser. As a conductor, I think every single day I need to be better than I was yesterday.’
The St Petersburg conservatory had two conducting streams, one of which produced Mariss Jansons, the other Valery Gergiev. Petrenko dodged both classes and took lessons with Ravil Martynov, a hard-drinking, lonely man who taught him never to enter rehearsal without knowing exactly what he wanted to achieve. ‘I tried from every conductor to take what was best for me,’ he reflects, ‘from Jansons being positive and encouraging with musicians, from Temirkanov the clean line, from Gergiev how to control and to appoint the right people. He is a god of management.’
It was an English conductor, though, who got him started. Sir Neville Marriner chaired a competition that he won in Spain and alerted his own agents to scout the young man. He was also being watched by Andrew Cornall, a former record executive who was advising Liverpool on how to get out of its black hole. ‘Liverpool had a concert coming up with a very low budget,’ he confides, ‘about £800 for the conductor. They couldn’t cancel because the chorus had spent a year studying Alexander Nevsky. I took it, of course. The hotel was terrible. The bed was too short. The window opened onto a main road. We rehearsed in Bootle Town Hall, horrible. But the concert went well.’
What the players saw in Petrenko was a conductor who was prepared to stand up and take responsibility. When one of them said ‘we gave a rubbish concert in Preston last week,’ his reply was ‘even if it didn’t click with the conductor, think of the audience who came – you need to give yourselves completely.’
Six months into his appointment, the orchestra renewed him to 2012. He has replaced 15 players – one sixth of the ensemble – without ructions or dissent, discussing everything he does in a warm, inclusive manner. Seeing him rehearse Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, a pot-boiler that the Phil had oddly never played before, was like watching a toddler take first steps, tottering, tumbling, rushing headlong into a wall. By the fourth attempt, the strings were powering away with real authority.
Petrenko has bought a house on the Wirral and put his four year-old son, Alexander, into a school five minutes away. His wife, Eugenie, is still struggling with the Scouse accent but the neighbours have taken them to heart. ‘The night I moved in,’ he says, ‘someone came to the door with a cake. The next day, another person with vegetables from his garden. They put my bins out for collection when I’m away.’
His international career has taken off, with Verdi’s Macbeth coming up in 2010 at Glyndebourne, Paris Opera and the Met. Next week he will be announced as the new chief of Britain’s National Youth Orchestra, an organisation in need of re-inspiration. What Petrenko brings is an unfailing optimism, allied to a determination to ignite on the night. In the mixed bag that is Liverpool 08, Vasily Petrenko stands out as the shining star.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]