Ask the average music enthusiast to think of a conductor, and the wizened features of a podium grandee probably come to mind. Yet in recent years a remarkable crop of young – very young – conductors has been engaging audiences with performances of remarkable authority, coupled with the unique flavour of energy and ambition that is the preserve of youth. Vasily Petrenko, the 31-year-old Russian maestro who took over a year ago as principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, is one such figure. The Orchestra’s announcement of their new chief was something of a surprise: not only was he young, he was virtually unknown to British audiences. This courageous decision may turn out to be one of the best the RLPO has ever taken.
Petrenko’s performances are already being praised for their intensity and intelligence, and not just in the Russian repertoire that will have formed such a solid part of his training – his un-dogmatic approach is as refreshing in Elgar as in Shostakovich.
His debut disc, however, was a Russian double-bill, though a far from obvious first offering: Shostakovich’s unfinished one-act opera The Gamblers was paired with Rothschild’s Violin. This fascinating piece, another one-act opera, was written by Veniamin Fleishman, Shostakovich’s most promising pupil. Devastated by the young composer’s death in the Second World War, Shostakovich completed the work himself, and it’s possible to date from this project Shostakovich’s interest in Jewish music (both Fleishman and the anti-hero of Chekhov’s story on which it’s based were Jewish). Recorded live at only Petrenko’s third appearance with the RLPO since taking over, he leads the musical forces throughout with a glorious sense of affinity with, and affection for, the works. The result was an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone’s July issue.
So where now for Petrenko? Such has been the success of the partnership that a mere six months into his first season at the RLPO his contract was extended until 2012. He’s already proved a thoughtful spokesman on behalf of the recent initiative launched by the UK’s eight leading publicly funded orchestras to increase audiences for classical music. Far from living in an ivory tower, in interviews he seems as happy citing The Beatles and Liverpool Football Club as he is discussing classical composers. He talks openly of wanting to emulate Simon Rattle’s success in Birmingham and to turn the RLPO into a symbol of Liverpool. Next year sees the city assume the mantle of European Capital of Culture. This should offer him and his ensemble suitably brightly lit exposure to do just that.