A conversation with Vasily Petrenko

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This month, Vasily Petrenko (‘a conductor of crisp technical assurance and interpretive depth’ – San Francisco Chronicle) makes his debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. Having worked with many of the world’s finest orchestras as guest conductor, Petrenko now looks forward to performing with the RPO: “It will be a great pleasure and a big honour for me. It’s the only big London Orchestra which I haven’t performed with yet.”

Now the Chief Conductor of three prestigious European orchestras (the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and – his most recent appointment – the European Union Youth Orchestra), Vasily Petrenko finds some time in his busy schedule to talk to Jessica Duchen about what Gustav Mahler means to him, and his debut in our upcoming performance of the composer’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony on Tuesday 22 March.

Watch the full conversation:

Mahler’s Symphony No.2 (popularly known as his ‘Resurrection’ Symphony) proves to be one of the most magnificent symphonies of the late-nineteenth century, and of all time, with technically demanding part-writing for its huge orchestration in each of its five (not the usual four) movements. The epic work’s orchestration includes a large mixed-voice chorus, soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, double woodwind, ten horns, eight trumpets, four trombones, two harps, an organ and an expanded percussion section, all of which are employed with great sensitivity.

Joining Vasily Petrenko in his significant debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will be soprano Ailish Tynan, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and the 150 voices of the Philharmonia Chorus, also making it a momentous highlight of the RPO’s 70th Anniversary Season.

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Olga Kern: fearlessness and family links

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Some think they need to suffer for their art. Olga Kern doesn’t seem to be one of them. For this forty-year-old Russian pianist, playing seems to come effortlessly. In 2001, she became the first woman in over thirty years to win the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and she has performed in front of former Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and George W Bush and the former Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. On none of those occasions did she feel nervous.

Next month, she will play with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under Pinchas Zukerman, and she makes a point of emphasising just how excited she is. This kind of fearlessness has always served Kern well. Although both her parents were pianists, she was self-motivated from the start: ‘Nobody told me which instrument I needed to play and they were not pushing me at all.’ And performing similarly came naturally to her: ‘The first time I was on stage I was seven years old, playing Haydn with an orchestra. I didn’t want to leave, and I knew from that moment that this is what I want to do.’

Luckily her talent matched up to her ambition: ‘When I was learning Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto, which is one of the most difficult concertos for piano, I remember it was so easy for me. I learnt it in, like, two weeks and I was fourteen years old. I said to Mum, “How is it possible?” My Mum said, “When I was pregnant with you I was playing the piece, so maybe you heard it.”’

Kern also has family links to Rachmaninov, through her great-grandmother – a mezzo-soprano who was accompanied on the piano by the composer. ‘Some people describe Rachmaninov as a completely cold person, but I feel he was always very polite and funny with his friends,’ says Kern.

She similarly takes pride in the fact that her great-great-grandmother was a good friend of Tchaikovsky, and exchanged many letters with him. ‘I have read some of the letters and he always expressed himself in a very kind way to her,’ Kern reveals.

Olga Kern’s performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in March will feature Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, a piece that certainly inspires the pianist: ‘There’s so much in it about nature. For example, the second movement is all about fields covered in snow.’ She continues, ‘then, in the middle section, you hear horses galloping through the beautiful field; it’s a really cold, beautiful sunny morning and the snow is shining. If you listen to Tchaikovsky’s ballets and his operas, too, there’s always something in them about nature.’

Does Kern’s personal link to the composer help when playing his music? ‘Yes,’ she says instantly. ‘I feel as though he is sitting behind my shoulder.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

Olga Kern performs Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Pinchas Zukerman on Tuesday 1 March 2016 at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

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The RPO’s 2015 in review

 

This New Year is especially exciting and significant as we celebrate our 70th anniversary year. As we look to the future with another fantastic year of performances, workshops, recordings and more, John Evans (former editor of Classic FM magazine) takes a look back at some of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2015 highlights.

From what The Guardian’s reviewer described as a “chillingly realised” performance of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Royal Festival Hall to a recording of a new work called A Requiem for Meters, composed for Smart Energy GB’s campaign promoting smart electric and gas meters, 2015 was a typically rich and diverse year for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The RPO’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Charles Dutoit, conducted the critically acclaimed performance of Bartók’s masterpiece at London’s Royal Festival Hall in January 2015. Clearly, the Orchestra had been energised by its week-long tour of Florida earlier the same month, under the guiding baton of Pinchas Zukerman, the RPO’s Principal Guest Conductor. Also in January, rising star Alexander Shelley was appointed the Orchestra’s Principal Associate Conductor. It was only January and already the RPO had set the bar for a year of achievement – a challenge to which it would cheerfully rise.

Of course, whoever stands on the RPO’s famous rostrum, the business of touring the UK’s regions remains at the heart of the Orchestra’s life. In 2015, it was as busy as ever, bringing great music to all corners of the nation – from Lowestoft (where, in April, the Orchestra was honoured for its decade-long association with the town’s Marina Theatre) to The Baths Hall in Scunthorpe; from the Regent Theatre in Ipswich to the Wycombe Swan Theatre in High Wycombe. Among many highlights were pianist Freddy Kempf’s performances of the Grieg Piano Concerto at Hull City Hall and Cambridge Corn Exchange in May.

In between its regional concerts, the RPO continued to entertain audiences at Cadogan Hall; its London home. Highlights included Alexander Shelley’s first concert in his new role, conducting the RPO with the pianist Alessio Bax in a sublime account of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2. In March, there was a feast of Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos performed by Janina Fialkowska and Freddy Kempf, as well as the Sibelius Violin Concerto performed by leading British violinist Matthew Trusler (featuring in one of the Orchestra’s many esteemed series this year). In May, Eduardo Portal returned to conduct the RPO in ravishing performances of works by Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov. Legendary conductor José Serebrier, the acclaimed virtuoso trumpeter Allen Vizzutti… the rollcall of great musicians delighting the RPO’s Cadogan Hall audiences continued throughout the year.

Elsewhere in London, the RPO demonstrated its world-class status with, at the Royal Abert Hall, a series of acclaimed BBC Proms concerts (among the many highlights, Charles Dutoit’s “clear-minded” (The Guardian) account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.15); at the Royal Festival Hall (notably Pinchas Zukerman’s performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto and, later in the year, conductor Tadaaki Otaka with Sarah Connolly and the Bach Choir in a performance of Elgar’s Sea Pictures); and at St Paul’s Cathedral, where the RPO performed a London premiere in composer/conductor John Rutter’s 70th Birthday Concert.

Touring is one cornerstone of the RPO’s life; another is the Orchestra’s refreshingly unstuffy approach to repertoire. In this respect, 2015 was a vintage year with the Desert Island Discs concert at the Royal Albert Hall and, at the same venue, a concert of Hollywood classics conducted by José Serebrier. Meanwhile, for families, there were live orchestral screenings of the latest Thomas the Tank Engine film at Cadogan Hall. However, the crowning concerts were surely those by Alexander Shelley and the RPO in a jazz-fuelled series featuring works by, among others, Gershwin, Prokofiev and Bernstein, given in venues around the UK – another exciting series to feature in the RPO’s 70th year.

A concert that will linger long in the minds of the members of the RPO was given at the culmination of a pioneering association with Hull’s Integrated Community Stroke Service. The service aims to help rehabilitate stroke sufferers through participation in music. Benefits include improved arm and hand movement, memory and mood. Following five months of coaching sessions with members of the RPO and Tim Steiner (the creative leader), the patient-led STROKEstra gave its first concert. Stroke survivor Tracy Jacobs said: “It gave me respite from my problems, and I don’t ever want to forget this part of my stroke journey.”

Also in 2015, the RPO launched RPO TV and RPO Radio, online channels offering great RPO content, and bringing audiences closer to the Orchestra and its members. The RPO website was also relaunched making it easier still for visitors to find and book their favourite concerts, as well purchase the RPO’s wonderful recordings, available from the improved online RPO Store.

Speaking of recordings, the RPO’s collaboration with RCA Records on the record label’s album featuring Elvis Presley’s most dramatic original performances augmented with brand new orchestral accompaniments by the Orchestra has been a runaway success. The recording, released in October, was number one in the album chart for two weeks running, and has remained in the top ten ever since.

A hit Elvis album, critically acclaimed concerts of the great classics, music for all tastes and ages, and a full programme of UK and overseas touring – the RPO, led by its members and its inspired conductors, can reflect on a year of remarkable performances. Now, with the arrival of 2016, the Orchestra looks forward to celebrating a major milestone in its history: its 70th anniversary year. On the strength of 2015, one thing’s for sure: world-class music-making will be guaranteed.

Written by John Evans

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An Interview with Matthew Trusler

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There are those who like to maximise their free time. Matthew Trusler, apparently, isn’t one of them. He is a solo violinist, who has played with orchestras ranging from the Philharmonia to the Minnesota. He is the founder of the record label Orchid Classics. In between, he devises projects for the Lenny Trusler Children’s Foundation, a charity for sick newborn babies and infants, which he also founded. So, just occasionally, something has to give. ‘I think the people that I work with are mostly understanding – that if I disappear for a few days, I’m not just being lazy.’

When we speak, he’s just performed Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, a piece that he will play three times with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – in High Wycombe, London and Hull – in the spring. ‘I’ve played it for years and it just doesn’t get any easier,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Technically there are bits that I just can’t play; it’s so hard. I can get through the last movement in my living room at, like, 80% of the tempo with probably a 99% accuracy rate. But onstage, at 105% of the tempo with a bit of adrenaline going, you’re lucky if you get anywhere near that.’ Luckily, that’s all part of the fun. ‘There are pieces that I feel are not difficult in that way, where the top of the mountain doesn’t keep moving. For me, they’re now boring and I don’t want to play them anymore,’ he says.

Doing things the hard way comes naturally to Trusler. The son of musicians, he began violin lessons at the age of three, and by his own admission, was a diligent practiser. ‘I don’t know how,’ he says, ‘because when I think now about my kids, I couldn’t get them to practise even if I wanted to. In that time between getting back from school and going to bed, we struggle to have dinner, watch a bit of telly, read a story and go to bed. And God forbid if they have to have a bath.’

But from a young age, Trusler was set on being a violinist, and after graduating from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute in 1998, he was hailed by The Times as ‘an authentic, though British, virtuoso’. So it’s interesting that Trusler then decided to split his focus, founding Orchid Classics in 2005. ‘It happened sort of accidentally. I always liked the idea of doing something entrepreneurial, and in the evenings with the telly on, I’d be googling “how to start a record label.” That was my hobby. Now it’s half my job.’

The Lenny Trusler Foundation, however, was born out of personal tragedy. ‘We had a baby, called Lenny, that died of a kidney disease very soon after he was born,’ he explains. ‘And almost immediately, even the same day, we were sitting in the garden talking about what on earth we could do to raise money for the people who had helped us.’ Eight and a half years later, the charity is thriving. Two weeks ago, the Wimbledon International Music Festival hosted a musical project consisting of thirteen new pieces by thirteen composers, based on one of Alice in Wonderland’s chapters. Wonderland, currently making its way across the UK, is only one of several musical projects devised in the name of Trusler’s son.

‘There’s no way I could be sitting here now just playing the violin and doing nothing else,’ says Trusler. ‘That wouldn’t have worked for me at all.’ That said, he admits there are times when the pressure feels daunting. ‘I don’t go out very much. I really don’t go on holiday. That, I really don’t ever do.’ It’s important, he says, to set clear cut-off points. ‘I always made a big thing about putting my phone in the cupboard as soon as my kids got back from school.’ He laughs: ‘They rigorously enforce it now. As soon as I put my phone away they’re like, “Yeah, and your iPad? Where’s your iPad?”’

And, actually, having less time has come in useful. ‘I think it was Leonard Bernstein who claimed that what he needed to produce great work was a really good idea and not enough time,’ says Trusler. ‘I think we all respond well to that.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

Matthew Trusler performs Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Wycombe Swan, Cadogan Hall, Hull City Hall and Cliffs Pavilion in spring 2016.

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Graham Bickley at Christmas

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It’s going to be a cracker of a Christmas at Cadogan Hall on Saturday 19 December when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Nick Davies, will be joined by two huge stars of TV and the West End stage: singers Anna-Jane Casey and Graham Bickley. They’ll be performing a festive concert of Christmas songs, duets and sing-alongs under the RPO Christmas tree as part of the Orchestra’s hugely popular Christmas Cracker concerts.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Graham says enthusiastically. “We’ll be singing a wonderful Christmas selection. Classics such as When a Child is Born and Mary’s Boy Child, moving into Winter Wonderland, I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm and Let it Snow. I’ll be doing some fab duets with Anna-Jane, too, including Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

“The Orchestra get to play their own festive pieces, too, but the audience won’t just be sitting there – they’ll be having a good sing-along as well. It’ll be a Christmas evening to remember.”

Graham’s name may be familiar to you from Bread, the smash-hit TV comedy series in which he played Joey Boswell. However, opera lovers may also recognise his surname as being shared by the celebrated mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley.

“She’s my sister,” the singer tells me proudly, between rehearsals for five different concerts he’ll be giving over the festive period. “Singing’s the family business!”

Graham got the singing bug from his father, the Deputy Head of a primary school, who was also a passionate member of the local am-dram group, and leader of the church choir.

Even before his teens, Graham knew he wanted to be on the stage and, fortunately for us, his parents encouraged it. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Liverpool Theatre School. “It was a fantastic place,” he says. “I never finished the course, though; I was working in the theatre almost from the day I joined.”

Graham learned his trade doing the summer seasons and pantos before moving to London in 1981 and getting more work in the West End. In 1989, he got his big break in Carla Lane’s hit TV comedy, Bread. “It was a fantastic series and great fun to make,” he says.

Graham made a triumphant return to the West End stage in 1992, and has been busy ever since in productions ranging from Les Misérables to Guys and Dolls and On the Town. He’s performed with some of the world’s biggest orchestras and starred in gala concerts dedicated to musical greats as diverse as Nelson Riddle and Stephen Sondheim. In 2010, he even found time to tour the UK with Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag in the hit show Steppin’ Out.

Reflecting on those years, his proudest moment was, he says, being nominated for an Olivier for his role in Ragtime in 2003.

Today, Graham is busier than ever, and just like previous years, Christmas promises to be his busiest time. “Between Boxing Day and New Year, I’ll be doing musical theatre,” he says. “From when I was young and in my father’s choir to being a professional, Christmas has always been busy – but I love it.”

However, on one day only, his stage outfit will be hanging in the wardrobe. “Christmas Day is family day,” he says. “Everyone will be around: my sister’s family and my mother.”

Perhaps, in the spirit of Christmas, they’ll be in the audience, too, at Cadogan Hall as Graham and Anna-Jane welcome in Christmas with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Written by John Evans


Graham Bickley performs in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Christmas Cracker concerts on Saturday 19 December 2015 (3.00pm and 7.30pm) at Cadogan Hall, London.

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