When conductor Vladimir Verbitsky and his wife Nelly are met at 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 25 years of commuting between Russia and Perth, the Verbitskys say the WA Symphony Orchestra feels like family and this month it will celebrate its relationship with Verbitsky with a gala concert recreating his first appearance 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," he 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 liked him 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, blond hair and heartfelt broken English, Verbitsky has become a much-loved figure with orchestra and audiences 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 Verbitskys are in Perth for six weeks, including a concert with the WA Youth Orchestra and two concerts with WASO. Vladimir will also try to visit an art exhibition and do some fishing.
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 the arrival and departure of three chief conductors.
"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, 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."
Mravinsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic for 50 years. Verbitsky has inherited his mentor's loyalty - he has been chief conductor of Russia's Voronezh Philharmonic Orchestra for 40 years - fastidious rehearsal technique and fondness for dynamic extremes.
Percussionist David 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.
The night of the concert involves a special regime. His wife will cook a special meal.
"He likes fish before the concert and two hours after he is very hungry and has a big meal," White says.
"The orchestra give a special treat; after the concert they bring a dozen fresh oysters to his room."
Will they keep coming back? The couple are agreed. Yes, they will - conductor laureate means "for life".
"I am very happy with this orchestra," Verbitsky says. "My life is here but my heart is also here."
"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."
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