Vasily Petrenko, conductor laureate of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: Mark McNulty
He left as chief conductor of the RLPO in 2021 after an epic 15 years and has moved with his family from their Wirral home to London, where he is working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as music director.
He returns to Liverpool following some major changes in his life.
The Russian-born 45-year-old has denounced Russia’s war with Ukraine and helped members of his close family escape from the invaded nation to begin new lives in Bulgaria.
Petrenko’s mother was Ukrainian, his father Russian, and he speaks openly and eloquently to LiverpoolWorld about the issues facing both sides of the conflict and the impact on everyday people.
“I feel that all of this war is so completely unnecessary,” Petrenko says, “Ukraine is like a brotherhood nation to Russia.
“It is like one half of me warring with the other. The goals at the start of this war were very strange and they are even less clear now.”
Vasily Petrenko - an honorary Scouser
Petrenko, who received critical acclaim for his work with the RLPO, was named an honorary Scouser in 2006 and was Liverpool’s citizen of honour in 2016.
In 2010, he won the Male Artist of the Year at the Classical BRIT Awards and has been awarded honorary doctorates from both the University of Liverpool and Liverpool Hope University and is an honorary fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.
He says he is looking forward to seeing colleagues and friends on his return to Liverpool during a different chapter in his life.
He has recently released a new album with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 5 ‘Emperor’ & 0 as a follow up to the successful release of Beethoven’s First and Second Piano Concertos in 2020.
The conductor, who has worked with some of the world’s best orchestras, was born in Russia and studied music initially at Russia’s oldest music school, the St Petersburg Capella Boys Music School, then went on to the St Petersburg Conservatoire.
Now working with the London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, he is also chief conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra.
Petrenko on the Russia-Ukraine war
In March, Petrenko released a strongly-worded statement about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and he has resigned as artistic director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’.
He told LiverpoolWorld: "The situation on both sides is mainly either you are with us or you are against us.
"I’m resigning from my position in Moscow, I was forced to resign.
"I’m not alone, quite a few conductors in Russia have resigned or are going to resign in the next week or two, because it is very clearly stated by the members of parliament, either you have to be in Russia and support all that the Government is doing in Ukraine, or you have to be out.
"I did feel a responsibility to the orchestra, even if they are not saying anything but their chief is saying something it might have consequences for them.
"I can travel to Russia, but I can’t perform there. I will travel to Russia, my father lives in St Petersburg, he is 84 soon and I’ll visit him hopefully this summer.
"It is very difficult to travel as you can’t really travel directly and need to go via places like Dubai or Turkey but I don’t want to let it stop me."
Helping family and friends escape Ukraine
Petrenko’s family in Ukraine have been impacted by the war and he says one of his grandmothers, who is in her 90s, was sheltering from attacks in a basement of a house in the village of Motyzhin, which is about 45km from Kyiv.
He says: "I have close relatives, cousins, nieces and others who still live in Ukraine.
"I visited Motyzhin many times in my childhood and beyond."
He describes his family sheltering in the cellar of his grandmother’s home without water, gas and power.
Miraculously, the house has managed to escape without any significant structural damage while other properties nearby ‘have been reduced to ash’, according to Petrenko.
He explains: "At one stage all the mobile connections were cut and so for about ten days I had absolutely no answer from my family and we had been talking regularly before.
“I was trying to find out what was going on through looking at Facebook groups from the village and the photographs were and still are really distressing.
"It has been upsetting not only because of the Russian army but because of maurauding as Ukraine gave weapons to everyone in the country to defend themselves and, as in any country, there are some good and bad people.
“There have been people defending their country and others exploring the possibilties to steal, maraude and do other illegal things."
He says he finally managed to get through to his family and around three weeks ago helped some of them escape to Bulgaria, where he has property: "I offered to help as many as I could, but many cannot leave, they either need to take care of the elderly or are men of army age and it is illegal for them to leave. My grandmother is still in Ukraine.”
He financed the journey for his two nieces, cousin’s mother-in-law and her grandson to travel by train and cross the Polish border, they then travelled from Warsaw to Sofia and on to Burgas on the Bulgarian coast.
Petrenko says he knew Olha Sukhenko, 51, the head of the village of Motyzhin, who had been helping bring food to Ukrainian citizens and soldiers.
She was found dead in April in a shallow grave in the woods alongside her husband Igor and 25-year-old son Oleksander, believed to be killed for helping Ukrainian soldiers.
A tragedy for both countries
He says he feels that sanctions against Russia have the effect of uniting the country as the majority of people ‘live in quite poor conditions’ and are also subject to propaganda.
"It is not everyone, but it is the majority who see Russia being surrounded by a circle of enemies and will give everything for this fight."
Petrenko acknowledges that although he is not a politician he would still like to see serious peace talks: "Every day of war brings loss of life.
"This is a tragedy for both countries, madness from one and resistance and defence from another.
"There will be some kind of iron curtain for Russia very, very soon and there will be many musicians who want to leave the county but may not be able to. Slowly and surely all the doors and windows to Russia are closing."
The power of music
He says he would like to help Russian musicians who want to work in the West: "As a conductor you are always on a journey, music is something that unites us and I want to show politicians, even the most radical ones, we can all work together in peace and we don’t need war."
He says in the future he would like to start an initiative uniting musicians from both Russia and Ukraine in an orchestra.
Petrenko has a packed calendar for 2022/23 including a White Nights concert in July in Liverpool where he is due to conduct Sergei Dogadin, winner of the 2019 Tchaikovsky Competition, in Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto.
The concert acknowledges the annual cultural festival in St Petersburg, which celebrates the bright nights due to its location near the Arctic Circle and Petrenko has conducted the concert in Liverpool for years - apart from during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
Although Petrenko kept busy with gardening, fishing and online talks, he found lockdown a ‘welcome rest and relief’ to spend time with family in Merseyside as he had worked for about five or six years up to that point without a holiday.
He says: "In some ways I wish we could still be in lockdown, but without war."
He leaves the interview to rehearse with the Temple Church Choir, with whom he is performing Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall in May.
“This performance had been planned for a long time, but it is incredible I am conducting it at this point. It is so relevant now,” he says.
Vasily Petrenko dates in Liverpool
May 5, 2022, 7:30pm - Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
Petrenko conducts Mahler - Royal Liverpool Philiharmonic Orchestra