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It is what most orchestral musicians and managements spend their lives dreaming about. Barely four months since his arrival as principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko has made a deep impression on the British city.
The 30-year-old Russian communicates tremendous energy. His technique is fluid and fluent. He knows when to stand back and when to engage. His performance of Elgar’s Second Symphony, which he conducted for the first time at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Thursday, could have been steeped in Elgar tradition, but he had his own views and knew how to put them across. The orchestra played with metropolitan virtuosity.
The fortunes of Liverpool’s orchestra have suddenly turned round. After a decade in which it seemed an unhappy organisation, heavily indebted and prone to the wrong musical choices, its members and supporters feel they have entered a new era. Each successive Petrenko concert reveals new facets about a man few had heard of before his Liverpool appointment. But will he stay long enough to make a permanent impact, before he is whisked off to a more glamorous podium?
There is no mistaking the fact that conducting talent has skipped a generation. The old masters – men relied on for insight and revelation, such as the octogenarian Kurt Masur and the 77-year-old Christoph von Dohnányi – are on their way out. Their programme ideas seem tired and old-fashioned. But instead of handing the baton to a group of 50- and 60-year-olds, they are being replaced by musicians who would previously have been regarded as too immature.
The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra has just appointed 26-year-old Gustavo Dudamel as its principal conductor. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 31, has been snapped up by the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Ilan Volkov, the young Israeli currently working with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, is being wooed by Birmingham and orchestras further afield. In September the London Philharmonic will tie the knot with Vladimir Jurowski, 34, widely recognised as the most capable of them all.
Young conductors not only come cheaper than the ones they replace. They bring vitality and ideas. They attract audiences their own age. They create a sense of regeneration.
What they don’t always bring is musical depth and substance, because in most cases they have not lived long enough. They may look good, and orchestras and managements are easily seduced by factors that cast a veil over artistic perceptions. Sooner or later – and this applies no matter how good the conductor is, no matter what age – the positive projections he or she aroused early in the relationship turn negative, as more objective considerations come into play. That is when the conductor’s depth as a musician starts to count.
Young conductors can sometimes pay heavily for their ambition, as the over-exposed Daniel Harding has found. It is unusual to come across the complete package. But Petrenko has done nothing so far that makes me doubt he is the real thing. As a teenager he travelled the world with an elite St Petersburg choir. In his 20s he started choral conducting, took a job at St Petersburg’s second opera theatre and built a wide repertoire, from Tchaikovsky ballets and Die Fledermaus to Mozart and Mendelssohn. He seems at ease with everything he touches.
Six years ago the RLPO was unnoticed and facing bankruptcy. Its local subsidy was a mere £135,000. Today it is the jewel in the crown of Liverpool’s forthcoming year as European capital of culture, with a £1.3m subsidy and one of the most dynamic managements in the UK orchestra world. Given the immense resources that have been invested in its turnround, it needed a talismanic figure to lead it into a new era. Then Petrenko appeared.
Petrenko’s first recordings with the orchestra – of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Fleischmann – will be released in the next 12 months. Plans for 2008 include a European tour, a Proms visit and the world premiere of John Taverner’s Requiem – part of a series of choral concerts designed to celebrate Liverpool’s tradition of song and Petrenko’s training as a choral conductor.
Beyond that he is not committing himself. He says he wants the city to recognise the orchestra’s improved profile by
upgrading Philharmonic Hall’s backstage and rehearsal facilities. He is anxious that 2008 should be a building block to greater things, not a one-off high. His diary already includes dates with London orchestras and European opera companies. America will soon be calling.
Programme details are available at www.liverpoolphil.com