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Vasily Petrenko under fire for remarks on women conductors

Features - Classical Music

Vasily Petrenko under fire for remarks on women conductors

by Clive Paget on August 31, 2013 (August 31, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
Charismatic Russian-born conductor tells Norwegian newspaper that orchestras play better under men.

Vasily Petrenko, Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and now Music Director of the Oslo Philharmonic has caused a firestorm after he told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten that orchestras “react better” when the conductor is a man. “When women get a family, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as the job demands”, he added.

Petrenko was being asked why he thought that among five new Norwegian conductors, none were female and none were Norwegian (both questions incidentally which could equally well be asked in Australia). “Men often have less sexual energy and can focus more on the music,” he went on. “A sweet girl on the podium can make your thoughts drift towards something else.”

The Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya from Peru who is taking over at the Norwegian Radio Orchestra was asked the same question but merely said it “You should ask the women about that,” and declared that it was difficult to explain. “Why are there so few female presidents and prime ministers?” he added. “I haven’t played under a female conductor, but my impression is that as long as the conductor is good, the orchestra will respect whoever is standing on the podium.”

In response to the question of why no Norwegian conductors are leading their orchestras the two men agreed that the world of classical music is without borders. “Think how it would be if we only work with musicians from where we come from,” said Harth-Bedoya. “Your passport, your country, your citizenship has little to do with music.”

The Oslo Philharmonic was quick to publish a retraction of sorts from Petrenko on their website. “I realize my statements in Aftenposten have caused a lot of discussion, and I’d like to clarify a few things”, he writes. “What I said was meant to be a description of the situation in Russia, my homeland." He then went on to take the opportunity for a side swipe at the Putin regime. "This situation is worsening with some new initiatives of the government. I deeply respect that many musicians, for example the famous violinist Gidon Kremer, feels the same way about the situation there. Taken out of context I understand that what I said can very easily be perceived in the wrong way.”

On the subject of women conductors he says: “I have the outmost respect for female conductors, for instance the extraordinary talented conductor Marin Alsop and the famous Veronika Dudarova. 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. I’m truly and deeply sorry that I expressed myself in a way that made people misunderstand me, but I’m also glad that the misunderstanding brought about so much discussion that I now can take the opportunity to clarify what I really mean. The discussion shows that this is a specially important issue, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the Norwegian society better and to learn more about the important issues here.”

When requestioned by Aftenposten Petrenko stated that male domination of orchestras is “an old tradition.” And when asked if orchestras play better for men he said, “Not better. Making music has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with talent and dedication.” He had some revealing remarks to add about a conductor’s personal appearance however in relation to an orchestra. “I have conducted some youth orchestras where I experienced approaches from both girls and boys after rehearsals,” he said. “But that shouldn’t happen.”

Addressing the furore caused by his comments Petrenko said “This is clearly an important issue in Norwegian society. If this had come up in Great Britain I don’t think people would have reacted in the same way. In Russia no one would have reacted at all.”

The Director of the Oslo Philharmonic, Ingrid Røynesdal, meanwhile was standing by her new man. “Many have been astonished by his comments,” she told Aftenposten. “If this had been his views on women, it would be a problem, but they’re not. As a young, female director myself who works closely with him, I am certain of that.”