UPDATED: Vasily Petrenko won rave reviews this week after conducting his first season openers of the Oslo Philharmonic, but he also caused offense off stage. Fellow female conductors say they were “shocked” when the charismatic young Russian told Oslo newspaper Aftenposten that orchestras “react better” when the conductor is a man.
Petrenko, age 37, added that “when women get a family, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as the branch demands.” He has a wife and young son himself, but apparently doesn’t feel that’s a hindrance to him, only to women.
And Petrenko didn’t stop there, after being asked why he thought there were no women among five new conductors in Norway: Men, he explained, “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.”
Petrenko’s comments were swiftly branded as “outdated,” both “shocking and extreme,” and “offensive and ridiculous” by two female conductors.
“I’m surprised that Petrenko can say something like that, both because it’s simply not true and because that sort of view of women is so outdated,” Cathrine Winnes, a lecturer at Norway’s music conservatory and head of the Östföta Blåsarsymfoni in Sweden, told Aftenposten after Petrenko’s comments were published. “Petrenko is a fantastic conductor and great role model. His comments are therefore extra unacceptable.” Winnes linked the lack of female conductors to “traditional styles” that will disappear as more female musicians join orchestras. “There will be more women conductors,” Winnes said. “It will take time and demand systematic efforts.”
Halldis Rønning, another professional orchestra leader, called Petrenko’s view on female conductors “shocking and extreme,” not least because he now “has such a central role in Norwegian cultural circles” and because “he mixes in sexuality and family life” with the profession. She’s one of only two female conductors in Norway and worked for the Bergen Philharmonic last season.
Petrenko, a new arrival in egalitarian-minded Norway, apparently has a lot to learn about local attitudes towards equality between the sexes. “The chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic has offended both women and men,” Rønning claimed. “In a Scandinavian context, his viewpoints are very special.”
‘Difficult to explain’
His troublesome comments came up when Aftenposten interviewed Petrenko and another new conductor in town, Miguel Harth-Bedoya from Peru, as being among two of the five new conductors in Norway, all of whom are under the age of 50 and none of whom is Norwegian. As Petrenko and Harth-Bedoya mounted the podiums at the Philharmonic and The Norwegian Radio Orchestra KORK respectively, Christian Vasquez from Venezuela is taking over as conductor of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra this fall and Giordano Bellincampi, an Italian-born Dane, is the new chief conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra. Edward Gardner from England has been named as new conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic from the fall of 2015.
Harth-Bedoya, for his part, said it “was difficult to explain” why none of the new conductors, even in egalitarian Norway, are women. “You should ask the women about that,” he told Aftenposten. “Why are there so few female presidents and prime ministers? 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.”
That answer clearly went down a lot better with Aftenposten’s readers, as did both conductors’ answer to the question of why none of the new conductors in Norway is Norwegian. Both said the music world is highly international and without borders. “Think if we only should work with musicians from where we come from,” Harth-Bedoya said. “Your passport, your country, your citizenship has little to do with music.”
Petrenko responds to his critics
Oslo Philharmonic officials, who otherwise have enjoyed highly positive publicity around Petrenko’s arrival, initially chose not to comment on their new conductor’s comments about women. Communications chef Liv Beate Skavdahl referred questions to Petrenko himself, who initially wasn’t available as he prepared for another evening on stage.
He later told Aftenposten, though, that he was referring to the situation in Russia when he said that orchestras prefer a male conductor. “That’s the view at many orchestras in my homeland,” Petrenko said. “But there are examples where women do a fantastic job as orchestra leaders, like Marin Alsop in Sao Paolo and the Russian Veronika Dudarova, who led the Moscow Symphony Orchestra for 60 years.”
Petrenko said, though, that male domination of orchestras is is “an old tradition.” He amended his earlier comments that orchestras “react better” to a male conductor.
“Not better. Making music has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with talent and dedication,” he said, adding that the tradition of male conductors “must be changed.” He does believe, however, that a conductor’s appearance can affect his or her meeting with the 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.”
Learning more about Norway
Petrenko said he was “interested” to see that the reaction to his comments was so strong. “This is clearly an important issue in Norwegian society,” he said. “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 new director of the Oslo Philharmonic, Ingrid Røynesdal, said the orchestra and its administration were taking Petrenko’s comments seriously. “We have discussed this, and many have been astonished by his comments,” Røynesdal 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.”
The Oslo Philharmonic also published a commentary on its website (external link) where Petrenko apologized for what he said. The orchestra also had a rehearsal on Friday for its concerts at the BBC Proms in early September, and he used the occasion to comment on the issue to the orchestra members. “I said the same I’m saying now,” Petrenko said. “I was referring to the situation in Russia, and I meant to describe how things shouldn’t be.”
Petrenko also acknowledged on the Philharmonic’s website that he does have a lot to learn about Norwegian society: “I’m looking forward to getting to know the Norwegian society better and learn more about the important issues here.”