Was the conductor sexy? Did gender interfere with the music? I doubt if members of the Oslo Philharmonic asked either question when Vasily Petrenko first pitched up in the Norwegian capital. But the orchestra’s chief conductor got himself in a spot of bother this week when, just as he and his musicians were appearing at the BBC Proms, a Norwegian newspaper published an interview in which he implied that orchestras asked those very questions whenever a woman stood on the podium.
Whether or not the quotes were accurate – and Petrenko deals on a daily basis with a female concertmaster and a female principal horn, star of this Prom’s Bruckner Fourth Symphony – they inadvertently spotlighted the slow progress of female conductors. Positive discrimination could be counterproductive: what’s needed is quiet encouragement, not negativity. As Marin Alsop, due to become the first female conductor of the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, told the FT a year ago, “if you come prepared and are 100 per cent committed to the music, musicians don’t care if you have seven legs.”
Better known in the UK as conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko at this Prom profiled himself in the core Austro-German repertoire, in which he is relatively untested. His Bruckner and Beethoven – the Second Piano Concerto with Christian Ihle Hadland – announced a different Oslo Philharmonic to the orchestra that carved its Proms reputation with Mariss Jansons two decades ago. The sound was clean, bright, light, compact. The orchestra sounded well drilled and immaculately balanced, especially at either end of the dynamic spectrum – but neither of these performances had much depth or personality.
The Beethoven was a chamber rendition, nimble and small-scale. Hadland’s slow movement emphasised the music’s intimacy, but it was all about touch and sound: there was nothing even demi-semi-improvisatory about it. The Bruckner had similar characteristics – fine as far as it went, with a far-from-ponderous slow movement, but on too tight a rein to be expressive. A Bruckner performance should communicate an overarching span, building to a patient climax. Petrenko set out with such propulsive intentions that the music had nowhere to go.