Russian Conductor Vasily Petrenko Says Orchestras “React Better” to Male Conductors

By Louise Burton on Sep 05, 2013 04:49 AM EDT

Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, in his first week of concerts as the Oslo Philharmonic's new music director, came under fire in the media for some comments he made to Oslo newspaper Aftenposten about women conductors.

Petrenko, 37, told the newspaper that orchestras "react better" when the conductor is a man. He also said that "when women get a family, it becomes difficult to be as dedicated as the branch demands."

And when Aftenposten asked Petrenko why he thought there were no women among five new conductors chosen to lead Norwegian orchestras, Petrenko said that men "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."

Snap out of it, Vasily! Time to rejoin the 21st century.

Views and News from Norway, an English-language newspaper, reported that two female conductors called his comments "outdated," both "shocking and extreme" and "offensive and ridiculous."

As so often happens, Petrenko made things worse when he tried to explain himself. He later told Aftenposten that he was referring to Russian orchestras when he made the comment about orchestras preferring a male conductor.

He also backtracked on his earlier comments that orchestras "react better" to a male conductor. "Not better," he said. "Making music has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with talent and dedication."

Well, why didn't he say that in the first place?

Petrenko also said he was "interested" to see how strongly people reacted to his comments. "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."

Judging from an article in British newspaper The Guardian, people in Great Britain have reacted much the same way as Norwegians.

In addition to his duties with the Oslo Philharmonic, Petrenko is the conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Britain's National Youth Orchestra.

Sarah Alexander, chief executive of the National Youth Orchestra, told The Guardian that she was disappointed that Petrenko should "express such a narrow view when he is chief conductor of an organization that is run by a woman, half of whose teaching staff are women, all of whose senior management team are women and 50 percent of its members are young women, for whom we actively encourage a vision as future leaders."

And Femke Colborne, a commentator in The Guardian, said she thinks Petrenko must resign over his ill-judged comments.

The Oslo Philharmonic published a statement by Petrenko on their website, in which 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."

Petrenko has obviously started off on the wrong foot in his new conducting post at the Oslo Philharmonic. But whether or not he is able to right himself, and make a name for himself there through his music and not his ill-judged comments, remains to be seen.

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TagsVasily Petrenko, Oslo Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, National Youth Orchestra, Aftenposten, The Guardian, Marin Alsop, Veronika Dudarova, Sarah Alexander, Femke Colborne

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