Vasily Petrenko: ‘To understand classical music you need no language – it’s a direct link from heart to heart’

29 October 2019, 13:12 | Updated: 9 December 2019, 13:25

Conductor Vasily Petrenko: “To understand classical music you need no language – it’s a direct link from heart to heart”
Conductor Vasily Petrenko: “To understand classical music you need no language – it’s a direct link from heart to heart”. Picture: Sveta Tarvola / IMG Artists

By Rosie Pentreath

The Russian maestro speaks to Classic FM about becoming music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the orchestra’s exciting new partnership with the Royal Albert Hall.

We meet Vasily Patrenko on a rainy London day, and seek shelter inside the curved walls of the Royal Albert Hall.

As well as the recent announcement of his appointment as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) for the 2021/22 season onwards – Director Designate before that, from 2020 – Petrenko is also here to talk about the exciting new partnership between the RPO and the Royal Albert Hall, which is being announced next week.

“I loved the Royal Albert Hall from the very first time I came here, maybe fifteen years ago,” Petrenko says, speaking exclusively to Classic FM.

“For me, it’s always a pleasure to be here, especially for the right repertoire. This hall is designed and built as a grand venue, so if you perform here you have to perform something big – something for many participants – and then it sounds very natural here.

“The partnership with the Hall will allow us to perform big, symphonic repertoire, like Mahler, for instance. I also have plans to bring some big English oratorios to the Hall.”

Read more: Vasily Petrenko will be the new Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2021 >

Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic perform at the Royal Albert Hall for Classic FM Live 2015
Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic perform at the Royal Albert Hall for Classic FM Live 2015. Picture: PA

The Hall’s place in London’s classical music scene might centre largely around The Proms, but for Petrenko it is even better viewed as a year-round destination for music lovers.

“It’s important for Londoners to have an all-year-round season here, with a very serious classical music approach.

“It is a venue for diverse music and events, but I think classical music should have more of a place in the main season. And that’s what we’re working towards and hoping for through the partnership.”

The RPO’s announcement of its partnership with the Royal Albert Hall is an exciting development for both the orchestra, which will continue to also be based at Cadogan Hall where it has been since 2004, and the venue, which hosts a range of classical and non-classical music events throughout the year.

And new research by the RPO suggests there is no better springboard for British orchestral music than the Royal Albert Hall. A poll they conducted saw the Royal Albert Hall top the list of UK concert venues with 58 per cent of respondents saying that it showcases the best of what Britain does. It was followed by Glastonbury (53 per cent) and Wembley Stadium (27 per cent).

“It’s a great honour and a great pleasure to come to London and work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra has a great history and a great present, and, I hope, an even better future,” Petrenko tells Classic FM.

The collaboration with the Royal Albert Hall will start with performances of Mahler’s Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 and 8, and there are a lot of plans for tours and concerts in London, and beyond.

“It’s the next part of the orchestra’s journey so there’s also plenty of hard work to come,” Petrenko laughs.

The Mahler selections Petrenko has planned with the RPO have been carefully chosen for the sheer size of forces required, both orchestral and choral, which suit the Albert Hall’s huge space. These will accompany the full Mahler Symphony Cycle Petrenko will conduct with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra before he says farewell.

What’s so special about Mahler’s symphonies?

Petrenko made his debut with the RPO at the Royal Albert Hall in March 2016, with a powerful rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No.2, ‘Resurrection’.

Speaking about his choices of Mahler this time around, Petrenko says: “They’re all great symphonies and they’re all explorations of the human spirit. This was the first time the symphonic genre became truly existential; a search of what the life of the human in the modern world means.

“Mahler raised existential questions such as: why is the world is so beautiful, but humans suffer so much? And those questions are eternal; they exist very much now as they did then.”

For Petrenko, Mahler’s symphonies raise spiritual questions about society versus the individual.

And perhaps no musical group is as representative of the coming together of society than the symphony orchestra.

“I prefer always to work together for progress and I’m always trying to see the world as one working together for the future,” the conductor explains.

“An orchestra is a great example of this working together – of how many people of different nationalities and playing different instruments are all working together to create something amazing. I really believe in such things more than in the division and in the small segments.”

Read more: We forced this guy to listen to all 9 Mahler symphonies in one day and he almost had a breakdown >

Vasily Petrenko
Vasily Petrenko. Picture: Mark McNulty / IMG Artists

The RPO’s appointment with the Albert Hall, which seats over 5,000 people, will especially help to bring the wonderful force of a symphony orchestra to a wider audience.

“The most important thing is the sense of discovery and the sense of inclusivity ­– in terms of the public who will be welcomed to the concerts. There is also the importance of diversity and making classical music accessible to anyone.

“To understand classical music you need no language – it’s a direct link from heart to heart,” is how Petrenko puts it, rather poignantly.

“Classical music is a huge part of my life and has always been, and to live without it would make my life empty.”

Vasily Petrenko becomes Director Designate of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2020 and Music Director in 2021. Visit www.rpo.co.uk to find out more.