Petrenko was born in Saint Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) in 1976. He is a graduate of the Glinka Choral School and the St Petersburg State Conservatory. He has taken part in masterclasses by such notable conductors as Yuri Temirkanov, Maris Jansons, Ilya Musin and Esa-Pekka Salonen. He was the conductor of The Mikhailovsky Theatre from 1994–1997 and then again from 2001–2004, followed by the same role at The "Looking Glass" Children's Musical Theatre in St Petersburg from 1997-2001.
Petrenko was a prize-winner at the Shostakovich International Choral Conducting Competition in St Petersburg (1997, 1st place), the IV International Prokofiev Conducting Competition in St Petersburg (2003, 2nd place) and the VI International Conducting Competition in Cadaqués, Spain (2002, Grand Prix).
From 2004-2007 he was the Principal Conductor of the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra. From 2009-2013 he was the Principal Conductor of the UK National Youth Orchestra, from 2013-2020 he was the Principal Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, from 2006-2021 he was the Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Since 2015 he has been the Chief Conductor of the EU Youth Orchestra. Since 2021 he has been Principal Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London and the Artistic Director of the Svetlanov State Orchestra of Russia in Moscow.
Vasily Petrenko has conducted many leading orchestras in Russia, Europe, Japan, Australia and the USA. He has participated in prestigious festivals in Edinburgh, Grafenegg, London (BBC Proms), Aspen, Cleveland (Blossom Music Festival) and Chicago (Ravinia).
Since 2004 the conductor has also collaborated with the following opera houses: Hamburg Opera (Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades), The Nederlandse Reisopera (Puccini's Willis, Verdi's Two Foscari, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov), Paris Opera (Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin), The Zürich Opera House (Bizet's Carmen, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk), Bavarian State Opera (Boris Godunov), Metropolitan Opera (The Queen of Spades) and others. In 2010, he made his debut at the Glyndebourne Opera Festival (Verdi's Macbeth). At the Mikhailovsky Theatre (where he was the Principal Guest Conductor from 2011-2015) he staged Puccini's La bohème, Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, Carmen and Eugene Onegin. He has performed Puccini's Tosca, Wagner's Parsifal, the Flying Dutchman and Verdi's Falstaff alongside English-speaking orchestras. The conductor's repertoire now includes over 30 operas.
The conductor's discography is constantly growing. His recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra include an album of Fleischmann's Violin Rothschild and Shostakovich's The Gamblers, Rachmaninoff's symphonies (for which the maestro received the German Echo Klassik Award 2012 for the Second and Third Symphonies) and all of his piano concertos (with soloist Simon Trpcheski). The complete collection includes all of Tchaikovsky's piano concertos and symphonies (the Manfred Symphony recording won the Gramophone Award in 2009). In 2015, the complete collection of Shostakovich's symphonies was released to international acclaim. In 2017, it was recordings of the composer's piano concertos followed.
With the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Petrenko recorded the Shostakovich Cello Concertos (soloist Truls Mørk) and the Szymanowski Violin Concerto (soloist Baiba Skride). An album from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet was released in 2016. The 2017-2019 releases include works by Elgar, Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov recorded with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and works by Scriabin with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. The 2020-2021 releases include the recordings of R. Strauss’ symphonic poems, symphonies by Prokofiev and Myaskovsky with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and works by Stravinsky and Zemlinsky with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 2007, Vasily Petrenko received the Gramophone Magazine’s Best Young Artist of the Year award, which he received again in 2017 in the Artist of the Year category. In 2010, he was named Artist of the Year at the Classic Brit Awards. In 2021, he won the BraVo Award for Conductor of the Year. Petrenko became the second person in history to be awarded an honorary doctorate by two Liverpool universities: the University of Liverpool and Liverpool Hope University. The musician was also made an Honorary Fellow of the Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool’s Citizen of Honour.
In addition to recitals with the The State Academic Symphony Orchestra "Evgeny Svetlanov" and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, Vasily Petrenko is due to appear alongside some of the leading orchestras in the world, including the Danish Radio Orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the NHK Orchestra (Tokyo), the Orchestre National de France, the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.