When conductor Vladimir Verbitsky and his wife Nelly are met at the Perth airport their first question is what is news? The car trip to the hotel is spent catching up on the orchestra gossip – who are the new players, has anyone had a baby?
After twenty-five years of commuting between Russia and Perth the Verbitsky’s say the WA Symphony Orchestra feel like family. This month the orchestra will celebrate their relationship with Verbitsky with a gala concert recreating his first appearance with them in 1987. Verbitsky was invited to conduct the orchestra after touring Australia with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in 1986.
“It was unforgettable, my first two or three visits to Perth,” Verbitsky says with a husky Russian accent. “It was every time a present, something special, like a festival. I found this orchestra special - I don’t know why. It is a beautiful city and there are beautiful people in the orchestra.”
“The orchestra probably like me too,” he adds with a twinkle in his blue eyes. “They invited me to be guest conductor and they gave me status of conductor laureate.”
With his impressive physique, blonde hair and heartfelt broken English, Verbitsky has become a much-loved figure with orchestra and audience alike. He became the orchestra’s principal guest conductor in 1992 and conductor laureate in 1998. In 2009 he became an Australian citizen in a unique public ceremony held with the orchestra at the Perth Concert Hall.
The Verbitsky’s own an apartment in Perth but it is being tenanted so they are dropped off at a hotel. They will be in Perth for six weeks, which will include a concert with the WA Youth Orchestra and two concerts with WASO. If there is time Vladimir will try to visit an art exhibition, “I love painting very much, I think it is very close to music”, and do some fishing, “for me the best way to relax”.
Over the decades Verbitsky has introduced to WA the jewels of Russian repertoire and countless Russian soloists. He has seen many changes at WASO including three chief conductors come and go.
“The level of the orchestra has extraordinarily changed. Twenty-five years ago it was a very good orchestra, now it is a really fantastic orchestra. It is a professional orchestra on a world scale.”
Verbitsky began his career working as assistant to Yevgeny Mravinsky, the renowned conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic.
“It was one of the best orchestras around the world in his time,” remembers Verbitsky, who was a graduate of the St Petersburg Conservatory. “I was the only one allowed in rehearsals and I learnt his precise style, his technical skills. It was a great method.”
Mrvainsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic for fifty years, an achievement matched by only five other conductors worldwide. Verbitsky has inherited his mentor’s loyalty (he has been chief conductor of the Voronezh Philharmonic Orchestra for forty years), fastidious rehearsal technique and fondness for dynamic extremes.
Percussionist Tim White has been in the orchestra since Verbitsky’s first rehearsal, where the translator stepped aside and let Verbitsky’s baton and expressive face do the communicating.
“Rehearsals are slow, meticulous, demanding and astonishingly thorough,” White says. “He often asks us for extreme softness in rehearsals – our lower strings sometimes just pretend to play! When we next play the piece Vladimir’s interpretation of it has stayed with us. Vladimir has shaped the sound and musicianship of WASO more than any other conductor in its history.”
Verbitsky’s passionate conducting is legendary. After the technical rigour of rehearsals the concerts are about communicating emotion and the effect is dazzling, full of energy and surprises.
“I love this orchestra very much,” Verbitsky says. “I feel a very good support and response and I feel with every concert very satisfied.”
The night of the concert involves a special regime. Nelly (a retired professor of mathematics who now acts as general manager to her husband) will cook a special meal.
“He likes fish before the concert. And two hours after the concert he is very hungry and has a big meal. The orchestra give a special treat; after the concert they bring a dozen fresh oysters to his room.”
Will they keep coming back?
Nelly looks at me in surprise. “Conductor laureate means the orchestra are for life. Yes we will keep coming back!”
Vladimir quietly agrees.
“I am very happy with this orchestra. My life is here but my heart is also here.”