One day last week I was sitting in an empty Philharmonic Hall auditorium in Liverpool, listening to the entire Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, all 90 of them, bashing away during an orchestral rehearsal.
You can’t believe the noise and excitement, the echoes and reverberations that throb through your whole body when you sit alone so close to so many top professional musicians going full pelt. Many in jeans and trainers, as it was a morning rehearsal, but totally caught up in their work.
In front of me, but with his back to me, looking ridiculously young to be in charge of so many mature musicians, was the conductor, Vasily Petrenko, urging them on, standing no nonsense, allowing no slacking, making them go over and over the same few bars.
I suddenly remembered being at Spurs many years ago, watching them training. They were being screamed and shouted at, made to practise the same set pieces over and over again. Only the appalling language was different.
After a season with Spurs, I knew who the skivers and slackers were – who hated training, and who was thinking of the pub and what car to buy. I also knew by then what the manager Bill Nicholson and his coaches really thought about each player. Football coaches, like conductors, are able to knock their charges into shape in private for their next public, professional performance in front of a large audience.
I have no interest in classical music, but seeing professionals at work is always fascinating. Many years ago, when I was in the sixth form at grammar school, I was mad for classical stuff. Hoh yes. I went to violin lessons for about five years, goodness knows how my mother afforded it, and played in the school orchestra. In the holidays I hitchhiked up to Edinburgh for the Festival or down to London for the Proms to watch my heroes, Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin. Can’t believe it now. When rock’n’roll arrived, I gave up all classical nonsense for ever.
I was in Liverpool because a quartet of Philharmonic players had invited me to take part in a concert of Beatles music. They played the tunes and I introduced each one, explaining the background. Gosh, it was fun. As a thank you, they said I could watch the whole orchestra at work.
I’d never heard of their conductor, but apparently Petrenko is famous, a superstar on Merseyside, aged just 40, so handsome and dynamic. I never spoke to him (I know my place) so I can’t vouch for his musical qualities.
He came to Liverpool ten years ago, their youngest-ever conductor, settling there with his wife and young family. He’s a keen football fan, a follower of Liverpool FC and Zenit St Petersburg. Clearly a man of discernment. He often compares his job to being a football coach.
Is it a fair comparison? On the surface, orchestras are similar to football teams. The conductor has to cajole, encourage; stand no nonsense; be in command, a teacher; know his stuff, know his own mind; be inspirational.
First violins are the strikers (second violins on the bench); violas and cellos are the grafting midfielders with occasional flashes of brilliance; woodwind players are the temperamental Mediterranean superstars who occasionally flounce off in a huff; brass and percussion are the goalkeepers, who sit around for ages and then do something that everyone notices.
There’s a temptation, with any sort of successful conductor/manager, to imagine their powers can be transferred. Because someone managed ICI he can be a government minister. People were always telling Fergie and Cloughie they should move on from Man United and Derby and run the UK.
It doesn’t quite work that way. It’s in that place, at that time, and with those people, that they appear for a while to have got management right. We like to think there’s a secret, that it can be passed on. All conductors and managers have just one thing in common: they have to be actors.
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue