Vasily Petrenko has found himself under attack just days after launching his first season as chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, following the publication of an interview with a leading Norwegian newspaper in which he claimed orchestras ‘react better’ to male than female conductors.
Among other comments in response to a question about the absence of women in five new high-profile Norwegian conducting appointments published in Aftenposten, the country’s largest-circulation daily, were Petrenko’s observations that: male conductors ‘often have less sexual energy and can focus more on the music; a sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else’; and that ‘when women get a family, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as is demanded’.
In the UK, Petrenko is principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The NYO’s chief executive, Sarah Alexander, told the Guardian that she was disappointed with the comments and that it was ‘not an opinion I have ever heard him express before’.
In a statement released through the Oslo Philharmonic’s website, Petrenko sought to clarify his remarks by insisting they referred to his experience of conducting in his native Russia (where he is currently principal guest conductor of St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre).
Citing the examples of Marin Alsop and Veronika Dudarova (who conducted the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra from 1947, becoming its principal conductor in 1960, and founded the Symphony Orchestra of Russia in 1991) he said that ‘Making music has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with talent and dedication’.
His remarks were greeted in Norway with outrage, with Halldis Rønning, the first woman to gain a long-term conducting contract with a professional Norwegian orchestra when she became assistant conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in 2011, dismissing them as ‘shocking and extreme’.
Ms Rønning added: ‘The chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic has offended both women and men’.
Adding to the furore, Cathrine Winnes, a lecturer at the Norwegian Academy of Music and head of the Östgöta Blåsarsymfoni in Sweden, told Aftenposten she was surprised by Petrenko’s remarks ‘because it’s simply not true and because that sort of view of women is so outdated. Petrenko is a fantastic conductor and great role model [so] his comments are therefore extra unacceptable.’
In a statement, Petrenko said: ‘I’m truly and deeply sorry that I expressed myself in a way that made people misunderstand me. I have the outmost respect for female conductors [and] I’d encourage any girl to study conducting. How successful they turn out to be depends on their talent and their work, definitely not their gender. I also want to add that my beloved wife is a choral conductor’.
- Update 6 September: Reaction to Vasily Petrenko’s comments, which gained widespread media coverage to again portray classical music in a poor light, has been generally condemnatory but to varying degrees.
In the Guardian, Femke Colborne said that Petrenko should resign from his positions at the RLPO and Oslo Philharmonic: ‘If the CEO of any major corporation publicly declared that having a “sweet girl” at the head of the table in board meetings made it difficult for the others to concentrate because there was too much “sexual energy”, they would certainly lose their job ‒ and rightly so.’
Also in the Guardian, columnist Simon Jenkins could only ‘marvel at Petrenko’s bravery’, seeing as he would now have to return to the female-run NYO (failing also to mention that Petrenko’s wife is herself a conductor).
Sarah Connolly wrote in the Telegraph: ‘How appalling that any woman performer who perfects her art with hours of daily practice should find the critical judgment of her colleagues reduced to what she looks like on the night.’
The Telegraph’s chief music critic Ivan Hewett said he was not surprised that the ‘refreshingly candid’ Petrenko, when asked about the role of sexual politics in orchestral life, ‘would fail to say something totally anodyne’.
Nigel Kennedy was reported in the Evening Standard: ‘I don’t give a toss about a conductor’s gender. It’s incredible, given we’re supposed to be living in the 21st century, that this debate even exists.’