Vasily Petrenko: My job does not make for a very easy family life

From the age of seven, RLPO conductor Vasily Petrenko was pushed to be a star. Here he opens his home to Laura Davis

THE woman behind heart-throb composer Vasily Petrenko is making tea in their spacious kitchen when I arrive. Evgenia Petrenko is petite, pretty and softly-spoken, with big brown eyes and a wide, shy smile.

There are no teabags in Russia, her husband informs us as they sip leaf tea from matching white mugs. It is just one of the many differences between the country of their birth and their current home.

There were plenty of surprises in store for the couple when they moved to Merseyside in 2006 with their son Sasha, so Vasily could take up the post of principal conductor to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I spoke English but not in England – I had spoken it in mostly in Poland,” says Evgenia. “When I came here I couldn’t understand a word because the accent’s so different. I thought ‘What did I learn?’.

“When we moved to this house we had builders. Then Vasily went on tour and I was on my own with them and I couldn’t understand them.”

Her husband found British social conventions the most difficult thing to adapt to.

“It’s much simpler in Russia,” explains the 35-year-old. “If I wanted to visit a friend I can call him and ask ‘Are you at home, can I come in 20 minutes?’. Here you need to book a dinner for about two weeks in advance.

“Here, people usually say something different to what they mean, even from the very beginning of a conversation. In Russia, if you asked someone ‘How are you?’, you would get all their problems, starting from three generations before.”

The friendly nature of the local people helped them settle in, first in a rented Duke Street apartment and now a comfortable semi-detached house in Wirral where even the doorbell plays classical music.

The last vestiges of Christmas, a single strand of red tinsel, decorates the Roland digital piano in the living room, which seems very much the domain of seven-year-old Sasha.

It is here, next to the bookcase filled with board games, that he often stands on a podium made from a cardboard box and conducts to a recording, his small body swamped in a makeshift concert gown.

“We have friends with children the same age and they are already learning music five times a day,” says Evgenia, also 35.

“Some of them are gifted in other things but they just do music. We don’t want that for Sasha.”

Vasily continues: “We are keen for him to find what he wants to do and what he’s ready to work hard for.

“He’s much more vivid, much more joyful than I was. I’ve always been much more selfish and more serious.”

It’s hard to imagine the charming adult Vasily Petrenko with his army of fans as a horribly precocious little boy, putting on airs and graces and bossing his classmates about at school. But this, he insists, is exactly what he was – and is the reason why he ended up becoming a composer.

“I asked my mother why they put me in such a competitive school and she said I behaved to the other kids as if I was a super hero and they were my servants,” he says.

“By the age of five she thought that was not good behaviour for the future so her idea was to put me into an environment where everybody around me was a wunderkind as well.”

He was sent to one of the most competitive schools in the Soviet Union, which boys entered at the age of seven with an already determined career path – “You were pushed daily to be a star.”

As long as they passed all their exams they would graduate with a certificate in choral conducting. In Vasily’s year, only eight out of a class of 35 children succeeded and continued to study at the St Petersburg Conservatoire.

“You knew the logical way would be to go to the conservatoire, finish with a golden medal and then be a superstar somewhere,” he says.

“Sadly very few made a great career. All my friends from there are successful but they’re doing different jobs. Very few of them are musicians.”

It was here that Vasily met the woman who was to become his wife – at a meet-and-greet event for new students.

“Fifteen new people were introduced,” recalls Vasily. “We’d been sitting and discussing the girls and we’d noticed there were three that were nice looking. She was one of them.”

They eventually got together during a tour to Germany.

“It was exciting, so many students all together at one time and we had parties,” reveals Evgenia.

“That was probably the first romantic story,” says Vasily, coyly.

Their shared musical background helps the challenges that come with being an internationally renowned conductor.

Evgenia began playing music at the age of five when her grandmother, the wife of a military officer, bought her a piano. Now a choral conductor and music teacher at Liverpool Hope University, she spent four years travelling with a professional chorus so understands the demands of touring.

“I miss Vasily so I would prefer him to be based in the same place more but I understand,” she says.

Her husband agrees: “It’s manageable but it’s not a very easy family life and of course we live far from our parents.

“In Russia relations between grandparents and grandchildren are extremely intense. Our parents accept that we are away from them most of the time but they are always screaming and yelling about Sasha being away.”

Vasily’s father has been to visit Liverpool – bringing back memories of a visit to the city in the 60s when he was a member of a jazz band.

Meanwhile, Sasha is a regular sight at RLPO concerts, where he receives almost as much attention during the interval as his dad.

Despite his efforts in the living room, he is a long way from understanding even the basics of conducting, which Vasily describes as “an art”.

It takes many hours for the chief conductor (his title changed in 2009 when he extended his contract to 2015) to prepare for a concert.

“You need to know the piece by memory, the story behind the piece, when it was written, why it was written, what happened to the composer at that time, the historical context,” he explains. “I know interpretations of the past, recordings and live concerts and the possibilities of the orchestra wherever I am conducting.”

It is then up to him to express his vision to the musicians.

“It takes a very long time and very hard work to really clear your mind and know without a doubt what you want,” he continues. “If you really believe in what you want then the hands will follow.”

He is his own harshest critic.

“Whatever happens in the concert it’s my fault,” Vasily adds. “I’ve even found I’m responsible for coughs in the audience, it’s really bizarre.

“I’d say maybe one in 1,000 concerts I’m satisfied with myself.”

Liverpool Post, 2/2/12</em