Vasily Petrenko on Mental and Physical Preparation for Concerts

Image: Svetlana Tarlova

29th November 2023

Vasily Petrenko is Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he took on in 2021, becoming Conductor Laureate of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra following his hugely acclaimed fifteen-year tenure as their Chief Conductor from 2006-2021. He is Chief Conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra (since 2015), the Associate Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León, and has also served as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (2013-2020) and Principal Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (2009–2013). He stood down as Artistic Director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’ in 2021 having been their Principal Guest Conductor from 2016 and Artistic Director from 2020.

Born in 1976, Petrenko was educated at the St Petersburg Capella Boys Music School – Russia’s oldest music school – and the St Petersburg Conservatoire where he participated in masterclasses with such luminary figures as Ilya Musin, Mariss Jansons and Yuri Temirkanov. He began his career as Resident Conductor (1994–1997) of St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. He has worked with many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus, London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Rome), St Petersburg Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France, Czech Philharmonic, NHK Symphony and Sydney Symphony Orchestras, and in North America has lead the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, and the San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Montreal Symphony Orchestras. He has appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, Grafenegg Festival and made frequent appearances at the BBC Proms. Equally at home in the opera house, and with over thirty operas in his repertoire, Vasily Petrenko has conducted widely on the operatic stage, including at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the Opéra National de Paris, Opernhaus Zürich, the Bayerische Staatsoper, and the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Recent highlights have included wide-ranging touring with the Royal Philharmonic, across major European capitals, Japan, and the US, including an acclaimed performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In London he led a survey of Mahler’s choral symphonies at the Royal Albert Hall. He made his debut appearance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and returned to the Cleveland Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Dresden Philharmonic, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, and a revival of Boris Godunov with the Bavarian State Opera as part of the Munich Opera Festival. In 23/24 he returns to tour the US and Europe with the Royal Philharmonic, makes his debut with the NDR-Elphilharmonie Orchestra in Hamburg and returns to the Seoul, Hong Kong, Israel and Dresden Philharmonics, the Pittsburgh and Dallas Symphonies, the Filarmonica della Scala, Milan, and the orchestra of the Palau de Les Arts, Valencia.

Vasily Petrenko has established a strongly defined profile as a recording artist. Amongst a wide discography, his Shostakovich, Rachmaninov and Elgar symphony cycles with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have garnered worldwide acclaim. With the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, he has released cycles of Scriabin’s symphonies and Strauss’ tone poems, and selected symphonies of Prokofiev and Myaskovsky.

In September 2017, Vasily Petrenko was honoured with the Artist of the Year award at the prestigious annual Gramophone Awards, one decade on from receiving their Young Artist of the Year award in October 2007. In 2010, he won the Male Artist of the Year at the Classical BRIT Awards and is only the second person to have been awarded Honorary Doctorates by both the University of Liverpool and Liverpool Hope University (in 2009), and an Honorary Fellowship of the Liverpool John Moores University (in 2012), awards which recognise the immense impact he has had on the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the city’s cultural scene.

Well, this was a very interesting suggestion for discussion, thank you Vasily. Is mental and physical preparation a topic of particular interest to you?

Well, I think that knowing how to mentally prepare yourself for concerts (as well as auditions and competitions) is very important training, especially for young musicians. Usually it’s not possible to be observed by the big fellows or colleagues who can give you advice and evaluate you, so I have been asked so many questions from young musicians about how to prepare for auditions.

The first thing I tell them is that you have to separate nervosity and inspiration. Unfortunately, classical music is a very underpaid profession for most. Most of the time you’re not doing it for money, you’re doing it because you love to perform music and to give something mentally, emotionally and philosophically to the audience. So that means you have to enjoy it, and to enjoy it you need to be inspired. But you should not be nervous, because nerves and extreme stress (which many young musicians have doing auditions and concert performances) actually block your inspiration. I’ve seen it many times, and have actually experienced it myself. You can become hyperactive, and then observing yourself later you can quite often think, ‘why did I do it that fast?’ or ‘why did I do it that loud?’ or ‘why did I demand that?’

When you are performing you have so much adrenaline, but in the moment you don’t realise this. It’s very individual, but what helped me was a little bit of breathing practice, meditative practice and, of course, experience. Let’s not forget experience helps – the more performances you do, the more it helps you to separate the inspiration and nervosity. First of all, on the day of the concert try to be very healthy. Do a decent amount of physical exercise – you should not over exhaust yourself, or try to suddenly build muscles like a bodybuilder, but you should prepare your body and work it out. It’s very individual, some people need just ten minutes stretching, some need half an hour in the gym, but try to do that. Also try to figure out the best time to do this exercise. Some people feel the best effect two hours before a concert, some prefer exercising that morning, others need to do it just before the concert.

You need to constantly observe how you feel physically when you’re performing, as well as in normal life. You should understand that if you’re doing x then you need to have y conditions. The idea is that these y conditions are the best possible for you, so that you’re feeling great even if you’re doing the most dramatic or tragic pieces of music. Deep inside you should have this ability to be at 100% of your physical capabilities.

You also need to eat well. Again, it’s very individual – some people may prefer to eat one or two hours before the concert, for some people it’s just before they go on stage so their blood sugar level can maintain the pressure for two hours (or three to four hours if you’re conducting opera). This is very important because what we’re doing as conductors is so mentally exhausting. It’s constant brainwork during the performance, analysing what’s going on, and working in three time dimensions. Firstly, you hear the music in your head. Secondly, you project with your hands and your body language to the orchestra. Then lastly, you have a response from the orchestra, which is a little bit delayed and you have to analyse how to correct it to bring it closer to the ideal in your mind. For that you need to be at the top of your game – all the time, ideally – and this is helped by physical preparation, eating the right food and having the right lifestyle.

The other thing that is extremely important is something I have still not figured out how to teach – so far I haven’t been able to find the right recipe.[1] Young conductors must remember to be and not pretend. If they impersonate Ozawa rather than being themselves the orchestra feels that immediately and will never trust them. But if someone is naturally feeling, thinking and moving as a conductor, then the orchestra will follow. What happens afterwards is a matter of taste, a matter of chemistry between the orchestra and conductor and many other factors.  But that initial moment – to be – is very, very important. From my point of view it’s a combination of musical and life experience, and a knowledge of the context: context of the piece, context of the performance environment, context of today’s happenings, as well as context of where we are mentally. But when and how to gain or become this ‘to be’ is something very mysterious.

I think the best advice I could probably give regarding preparation would be to always question yourself: am I being myself? Or am I being someone influenced by Herbert von Karajan? You can be influenced by Herbert von Karajan, Toscanini or whoever you like, but that has to go through your own internal understanding and internal talent. Then it feels natural and you are who you are, rather than who you pretend to be. For young conductors, this is probably the most important and most difficult aspect of preparation in the profession. As a conductor you face at least sixty or seventy pairs of eyes – sometimes it’s a hundred, sometimes several hundred. When you’re starting out in your career, those people are usually older than you, and most of them have more musical and life experience. Most often they recognise what is sincere and honest and what is made up in terms of art. You can only convince them of what you want if you are honest, sincere and humble. But that means you also have to be honest with yourself, and that is really difficult.

So you have to train yourself to be honest, sincere and humble, and that will probably also affect other parts of your life. But being those things with people in normal life is very, very difficult in the modern world.

I understand what you mean, and to teach that is so hard.

It is. But one big help is that what we’re usually communicating about, as conductors, is something that has been written by someone else: Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel… those geniuses of the past take priority, and to every conductor they give the rules. So firstly, you have to have a lot of knowledge about what you’re performing. You have to read the score, know it and then you have to deliver this knowledge to everyone else. A lot of people ask me about the role of the conductor and its relationship to the composer, and they ask how much right the conductor has to change what the composer has written. I think, to be honest, none. 

No, and it’s much less acceptable now than a hundred years ago.

Well, it’s like in theatre. If you come back to the same Hamlet by Shakespeare, you wouldn’t make Ophelia male, or Hamlet the Prince of Persia…

They might do now!

I know, but then it would not be Shakespeare. If you write your own Hamlet, then you can do that! But if you are an actor or a stage director doing a play then you have to follow the book. When you’re reading any book you have guidance, usually from the author, about the personage. Each character has certain sentences and phrases that you can read with your own internal hearing. You hear their voice in your mind – it might be different to what it is in my mind, but it would still essentially be the same character because that is what has been supplied by the author. It’s the same with music – when we’re reading the score, of course there might be some differences in interpretation, we are individuals, but it’s exactly the same book. You still have the boundaries the composer has placed you in, after that you can use your internal imagination.

When the composer is living you have a chance to talk with them – that’s another story. This, I think, is a very good thing, and another aspect of the conductor’s mental preparation. When you conduct contemporary music, you can discuss and influence certain aspects. A lot of Shostakovich’s symphonies were so successful and well received because he was collaborating with the great conductors while he was doing the premieres. In a way this is co-authorship.

In my experience with many living composers whose pieces I have premiered, they often start working on their second editions shortly after the work’s first performance. I have absolutely nothing to do with that – I just leave them comments, it’s up to them what to change and what to elaborate on. As the conductor you have to be mentally prepared to talk to the composer and to say to him or her, ‘do you think that this or that can be done in such a way?’ But you have to wholeheartedly accept every answer, whether he or she says, ‘yes, why not?’ or ‘hmm, you know what? Just do what’s written in the score’. You have to accept their answer without any background feeling that you know better. In a way you are the transmitter – it is the composer who takes priority. I think it’s one of our most important duties. If you think sincerely and wholeheartedly about the music to be premiered, you can talk to the composer and make suggestions. What happens afterwards is up to the composer.

Interesting. You were educated in Russia, and have since conducted all over the world. You have spoken in other interviews about the highly competitive culture you were educated in,[2] and how it instilled a ‘workaholic living style’.[3] Have you noticed a difference in how musicians from different backgrounds prepare for concerts?

The main difference in the Soviet Union training is that every orchestral musician was trained to be a soloist. If you look at the best Soviet orchestras, every violinist in the violin section can immediately play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto or Caprices by Paganini to a very, very high standard. That has its pros, because the general technical level is very high, and most of the orchestral musicians studied their instrument from roughly four years old, so they have so much experience and many years of preparation.

But on the negative side, each one has their own opinion, and if you’re trying to get sixteen people in a first violin section to agree it might be difficult. They all have great discipline, but they think about every note and every phrase in an individual way because they are from slightly different schools. They have been schooled in that way for so many years that each player will feel very strongly about how things should be played. In that sense, western culture produces more unity – there are more ‘orchestral musicians’ and it’s much easier to get this unity of sound in sections. However, if you need individual contribution further back than the second desk it can be complicated – they train to be one of a section, rather than the only one. That is probably one of the main difficulties.

There is something that I’m really trying to encourage musicians all around the world to do. I know that life is difficult and busy and there are plenty of things apart from rehearsals and concerts, but I would really strongly encourage everyone to listen to the pieces they have to play, especially if you don’t know them or if it’s something outside of the main repertoire. Just take your music part individually and have a listen. It’s so easy now with YouTube, Spotify and many, many other sources. Then, when you are playing in the orchestra you will have knowledge of what’s going on all around you, not just your own part.

Ideally, if everyone did that the music would be so much easier to play and perform. This is something that doesn’t always happen, and it happens far less in the Russian school, I have to say. Perhaps it’s not really fair to say this, but a lot of musicians there who were trained as soloists had the ambition to win the Tchaikovsky competition. If they never made it and ended up in an orchestra somewhere, they can feel so disappointed with their lives. They still love music but they feel that they individually can, and have to, play better than the orchestra altogether.

Can you really sense that when you’re conducting?

Well, again, this depends on the orchestra and in many ways depends on the Music Director, because that culture is something they can influence over the years. You can’t change it in one or two years, but over five to ten you can definitely change the attitude of an orchestra. But yes, I have had this feeling… It might be that you’ve never been there before and never met these people, or maybe you do know them and have no bad history with them. But you step onto the podium and even before you start to conduct, you can feel that animosity from the orchestra. This is not just in Russia, it also happens elsewhere from time to time. Again, this is probably related to the fact that classical music is a very underpaid profession all around the world. It has to have better recognition, but unfortunately with all the monetarism in these modern times the people who are in charge of giving budgets can’t see beyond the short term.

Classical art in general is something that brings a better quality of life. It can calm tension, which can lower the criminal rate and basically improve every aspect of human life. But you have to invest in fifteen to twenty years – at least one generation. When you highly invest in one generation the next generation will be equipped with much better knowledge and education.

We’ve proved this many times. One instance was with the ‘In Harmony’ Project in Liverpool, which was launched in 2009. We started in a very deprived area with about forty children. Their parents came to the Philharmonic Hall and I had a chat with all of them. The staff of the Philharmonic warned me that they would be the real Scousers – but I never had any problems with that. They didn’t know anything about classical music, and were from an area where the unemployment rate was over 25%. The kids had very low results in all their national exams and there was a lot of trouble on the street. But over the years we started to invest heavily into the cultural life of the area and now there are 1500 children involved from seven different schools. The school where we started became third in the whole region. That was mainly because of the ‘In Harmony’ initiative.

This was a small project – if it was done on a nationwide basis it could change so many things for the better. But again, you have to keep the investment going for 10-15 years. Great Britain accepting that its cultural values are very, very important can only be done through education – it cannot be done through people just talking about diversity. At the moment there are just occasional projects here and there. I think if a nationwide system educating people with those core values was accepted, then there would be a future of real integrity and true diversity. This is something for the future, but unfortunately, again, all the politicians just think in four-year terms.

Yes, of course. I noted (and agreed with) what you said in an interview from six years ago:

‘If you compare the immediate impact of a new hospital versus the impact of a new orchestra it’s very difficult to compare… in a hospital you can treat sick people, which is great. But with an orchestra and with culture you can prevent sickness’.[4]

Yes. It can prevent many diseases, and people causing injury to others.

Exactly. But understanding that requires a much more subtle awareness.

It does.

Another project we started was in collaboration with the NHS and HM Prison Service. It wasn’t my initiative (and I didn’t visit the prisons myself as you need training and special permission for those kinds of institutions) but I oversaw it with musicians from Liverpool Phil. They started to teach classical music to prisoners with very severe criminal records. Some of them had two life sentences – they really did horrible things in their lives. It resulted in such drastic changes in mental and physical health in those individuals. They cannot be released because of all the crimes they have committed, but instead of them banging the walls and hurting themselves or anybody else, they have become people studying books, trying to play their instruments and actually improving him or herself. This is another small but very, very important result of engaging with classical music and the arts.

That’s amazing. I saw similar results when I worked teaching music to deaf children in East London.

Actually, this week in Hong Kong I am performing with Nobuyuki Tsujii, who is a blind pianist. I’ve done a lot of concerts with him (including Liverpool and London) and I’ve travelled with him and his family many times. He is an incredible musician. I’ve performed with several people with a disability of some kind but most of the time you make allowances for that. In the case of Nobu? Nothing. When I’m performing with him I don’t even think, consider or feel that he’s blind – his way of music making is absolutely incredible. He has a huge following in Japan – something like twelve million people. Because of his other senses, he probably hears and feels more of the vibes than we who can see normally. It’s always a pleasure and so inspiring to be on stage with him, especially when you think what he copes with in everyday life.

One of the most difficult things is how he learns and prepares music. Initially there is a special Japanese professor who slowly plays the piece for him, saying what note is being played by what hand. (He wouldn’t be able to realise it by just listening to a recording. Although he can hear the music, he wouldn’t know which note was being played by what hand.) The professor also reads to him all the dynamics and tempo changes because as we mentioned earlier, this is a matter of personal interpretation. Otherwise he would play exactly like a Richter or Horowitz recording he’d listened to hundreds of times. But no, he’s himself and that’s because he absorbs all of that information and then performs the music in his own way. I can only imagine how long all of that takes. His repertoire is huge – huge – and he always plays two or three encores, and for every concert they’re different. That’s one of the very unique examples that I happen to be working on this week, but there are many, many others. Learning about and listening to classical music opens new boundaries, mentally. It’s broadens your view on the world and your ability to learn.

I’m currently preparing Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe (the full ballet) for the same concert. Aside from learning the score, my duty is to also learn the whole history of how Ravel interacted with Diaghilev, Fokine, and Nijinsky at the time. The original book is actually quite different from the ballet’s libretto, so I look into why there is this or that personage in the ballet and not in the original. Then I read about the myths of Pan, Syrinx and the Nymphs, and the general perception of the grotto and sunrise of Part III. Technically, this is just a ballet. But, to understand it in full and to be honest, sincere and humble I have to gain a much broader knowledge of the story and artistic background of the piece. It’s not just about the music.

Did any particular teachers or conductors inspire you in terms of mental and physical preparation?

Many, many. I always felt, in my life, that on Mount Olympus there are many Gods, not just Zeus (laughs). I’ve always tried to absorb ways of preparing that will work for me from many conductors. When I was very young I was lucky enough to catch one of the last concerts of Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1982 (I’ve also seen a lot of recordings of him conducting). His method of preparation was deeply philosophical. Physically, he never made many gestures – he never moved his hands too wildly or too wide – but you could see that every movement had its purpose. Sometimes he went from a very small gesture to slightly larger one, and the reaction from the orchestra would be enormous because for them that was a big sign.

I’ve seen a lot of Yuri Temirkanov’s rehearsals and concerts, who passed away just a few weeks ago. From him I learned about the direction of the phrase – how the phrase and the music naturally flow. He was, I think, one of the most gifted conductors in that sense – he knew instinctively, and intellectually, where every melody and phrase should go, and where it should diminish. This phraseology is very important, even in our speech. If you say everything with a constant measure, that’s AI for you.

(Laughs)

From Mariss Jansons I picked up a respect for the composer and, most importantly, respect for the musicians. Whether we use a baton or our hands, we don’t make a sound. We are not able to play any instrument in the orchestra to the same standard as they do. So our mission is to assist and respect them, and this is something that we always need to remember. We’re not there to be Napoleons, we are there to help.

The next one was probably Leonard Bernstein, who came to what was Leningrad, Russia in the late 1980s. We were trained to believe that music is a very serious business, that it’s deep, profound and something that involves a lot of analysis etc. But when I saw Lenny conduct West Side Story I realised just how much fun performing music on stage can be. Having fun is incredibly important. Then I think I saw one of Abbado’s concerts after he returned to conducting. Abbado had a long career but he had a break when he had cancer. When he was better he returned to St. Petersburg with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra – they played Mahler 9 and to me that was a revelation. All the previous conductors I’d seen had a very dependable and physical way of conducting – I could very clearly see that. But Abbado was spiritual, especially with Mahler 9, the composer’s last spiritual piece, you could see and sense that there was some probably other world which he has been and returned, and where he will go in a few years time. Some parts of that other world were present in his performance that night. You can sense it – it’s difficult to explain but it was very, very present.

Next I went to masterclasses with Neeme Jarvi, who has an incredible ability with the most classical repertoire like Beethoven, Weber or Mozart. He has this incredible gift of flexibility and discovery, even in the most known pieces – he can always find something new. I also had a couple of masterclasses with Esa Pekka Salonen. From him I think the most important thing I took is simplicity. Even in a very difficult and complicated piece (for instance, The Rite of Spring – which is very difficult, especially the first time you conduct it) he was able to find such simplicity, and such an easy way of delivering it to the orchestra. He made the life of the musicians easier because he was so at ease with it. That was another lesson I took from him: if there’s no necessity for complication, don’t do it. If you simplify the piece and have it structured in your mind, it’s much easier to deliver to everybody else.

But there were many, many others: Solti, who I’ve seen also personally; Gergiev, who I’ve observed a lot. So many! My method was to try and absorb what would be good for me, but it is equally important to observe someone else’s bad experiences. Actually, I think this is very important advice. In September [2023], for the first time ever, I judged a conducting competition in Szeged, Hungary. It’s incredibly hard work for the judges. For the first round, in three days we had over one hundred contestants and from this one hundred you have to choose sixteen. This was brutal. Unfortunately, very few of the contestants were sitting in the hall and watching the others. It was allowed, there was no problem, but they were not doing so and to be honest I think this is wrong.

I took part in eight or nine competitions myself. I won some prizes, I didn’t win others – I had all sorts of experiences. But if it was allowed, I was always very curious to watch my colleagues and analyse and understand as much as I could about them – you can always implement elements of what you have seen. Of course, when you are young you think that you are the best conductor in the world. All the others are just stupid and the jury is criminal because they don’t understand that you are the best. But you have to get over that and realise that even if you are not taken to the next round – there’s much more you can learn from watching the others conduct. This is vital: watch, listen, and try to analyse as much as you can from the experience of others. That will help your own experience.

What a fantastic answer – a whole range of influences there, and some great advice.

Well, it has been very kind of you to fit me in for a chat this week, Vasily. Thank you so much.

Pleasure.


[1] Vasily has taught students in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Oxford.

[2] For example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPXQrG_nJE0  (6m30s-18m40s).

[3] Ibid, 7m45s.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0rXWyCPPis (17m02s-17m22s).