Blond and boyishly handsome, Vasily Petrenko might be mistaken for a gymnast, or perhaps a player of his favorite sport, soccer. But when the 35-year-old Russian conductor steps onto a podium, there's no doubt about his true calling.
In 2009, Petrenko made a striking debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in an all-Russian program that included the most arresting Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich performances since Yuri Temirkanov stepped down as that ensemble's music director a few years earlier. Petrenko's return to the BSO this week promises more fireworks.
"We all thought of him as an up-and-comer when he was first here," said violinist Greg Mulligan. "He had that very direct manner — I don't want to say authoritarian," Mulligan adds with a laugh. "But he's a Russian maestro very much in control of the orchestra. He gets us to do what he wants."
Petrenko liked what he got. Writing in his blog after that first BSO gig, he noted the "very strong chemistry with orchestra, great response from audience and a lot of excitement overall."
Speaking by phone from Missouri, where he was guest conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Petrenko said he was looking forward to his return to Baltimore to lead Rachmaninoff's "underestimated" Symphony No. 3, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 (with soloist Barry Douglas) and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnole."
Wherever he conducts — before St. Louis, it was an appearance with the San Francisco Symphony that earned him some more glowing reviews — Petrenko starts with a simple wish.
"I hope musicians come to rehearsal not just to earn some money, but wanting to have some pleasure," he said. "By that, I mean to improve yourself."
Pleasurable improvement seems to be the norm for Petrenko and his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has been principal conductor since 2006. By his third year there, his contract was extended to 2015, a strong vote of confidence.
"What is rewarding so far is that we are in our sixth year and still have a romance," Petrenko said. "We have not exhausted out feelings for each other, and we still want to improve, to take care of each other."
Although it's officially England's oldest professional orchestra, with roots going back to 1840, the Royal Liverpool has not always enjoyed high critical standing. Evaluations have trended decidedly upward with Petrenko at the helm.
"I still see areas where the orchestra can be improved," he said. "But audience [attendance] has risen about 40 percent. There are sold-out concerts for me. There is a waiting list of 400 for our performance of Mahler's Ninth in December."
Petrenko began his education at a prestigious music school for boys in what was then called Leningrad. The school, founded by Peter the Great, specialized during the communist era in training choral conductors.
"There was a very strict schedule," Petrenko said. "The biggest reward was two hours of free time on Sunday. Why train so many choral conductors? In communist time, there were 250 choruses. Now, maybe 25 or 30."
By the time he moved on to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Petrenko had changed his focus.
"I realized that I should also study symphony and opera," he said. "A more broad repertoire can open a door to the whole world."
In St. Petersburg, the budding conductor could experience the work of many notable podium talents, including Temirkanov, longtime music director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.
"We had quite a few chats," Petrenko said. "I attended his concerts since I was 12, 13. And he observed a couple of my rehearsals."
Petrenko, who will add chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic to his duties in 2013, enjoys a busy international career.
"I'm always trying to demolish the myth of the Russian conductor only doing Russian music," he said. "Orchestras often decide to hire you based on recordings, and my Shostakovich cycle with Liverpool [on the Naxos label], which is so successful, winning awards and everything, that people want me to do Shostakovich."
When he can, Petrenko branches out widely.