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January 2, 2009 10:31 pm
The Paris home of Semyon Bychkov is a haven of peace in a little street near the Centre Pompidou. As we sit down to talk, the 56-year-old Russian conductor seems to be in unusually philosophical mood. Married to French pianist Marielle Labèque and in demand at leading orchestras and opera houses, he has reached that milestone in a conductor’s career where experience kicks in and performances glow with authority. He has spent most of the past six months conducting Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in a production by American video artist Bill Viola that focused on the transcendental nature of human love, its joys and sorrows. No one who saw it in Paris or on tour in Japan could fail to be engaged by the way it dealt with human interdependency.
His Tristan was a hit not just with the Parisian public but with the notoriously recalcitrant Opéra orchestra, which responded to his large, open-hearted gestures with warmth. In the UK, too, Bychkov’s profile is on an upward curve. After taking the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain on its winter tour next week, he returns to London in April for Lohengrin, the first of three productions he will conduct at the Royal Opera House (Don Carlo comes next season, followed by a new Tannhäuser). And he returns in August to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms, where they had a notable success two summers ago.
Bychkov is no stranger to the upward curve but each rapid advance in his career has been followed by a setback. He had his first break while still at the conservatoire in St Petersburg (then Leningrad), winning the 1973 Rachmaninov conducting competition and becoming the first student to be invited to direct the Leningrad Philharmonic. The engagement never took place: Bychkov suddenly fell foul of the Soviet authorities and left the country as part of the Jewish emigration quota, ending up in Vienna with little more than a suitcase of scores. Without a passport he had to wait several months, latterly in Rome, before settling in New York. He picked up his first professional engagements there and later became a US citizen. His two children still live there.
More than a decade later, and with a rapidly expanding career, he had his next big “win”. In the mid-1980s Herbert von Karajan, the leading conductor of the day, named Bychkov as his possible successor at the Berlin Philharmonic. But Karajan’s encomium – the equivalent to the Almighty’s blessing – quickly became a poisoned chalice: the expectations it aroused proved impossible for a conductor in his early 30s to fulfil. Another decade on, in the 1990s, came another apparent setback when his music directorship of the Orchestre de Paris was, by general consent, a failure. “It was a bad marriage; why should I deny it?” he says. “But I’m still grateful for the opportunity it gave me. Before that, I had never had a connection to French music. I got it from source, not as a tourist.”
Bychkov’s sanguine view of life informs his music-making, which hardly matches the hyper-emotional Russian stereotype. That, he explains, has as much to do with his student influences – a mixture of Russian and German musical traditions – as anything in his own temperament.
“We all dream of mind and heart beating in harmony: we search for it in life just as we do in music. In Brahms, everyone agrees that the challenge lies in combining the classical means of expression with the romantic spirit of the music. I was fortunate in my education: there was equal emphasis on the big heart – that’s the Russian way – and the big line, the intellectual rigour, the emphasis on structure and form, which is the Germanic way.”
His teacher in Leningrad, the legendary Ilya Musin, encouraged the “big heart” and showed him the physical means to let it speak, but it was his piano teacher who concentrated on the “big line” of Germanic tradition. “If one side is missing, the balance is lost,” says Bychkov. “Without the heart it becomes too cerebral, estranged from what music is supposed to be – something that moves us. But if it’s guided only by instinct, it becomes self-serving. You end up being the only one who is going to enjoy it.”
Despite the advantages his privileged Soviet musical education conferred, Bychkov spent much of his early career resenting Russia for precipitating his exile and preventing his father, a scientist, from joining the rest of the family in the west (he emigrated only after perestroika). That resentment was put to good use in the magnificent series of Shostakovich recordings Bychkov has made with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he has been chief conductor for the past ten years.
He says the passage of time has helped him make peace with the land of his birth. “Whenever I return I’m happy. This was the first culture for me, it never leaves me.” So all bad blood has been expunged? “No. When I first took my Cologne orchestra to St Petersburg, we gave a concert on May 9, which is a holy day, the day the [second world] war ended in Russia. At a press conference I was asked: how do you feel, as someone born in this city, about conducting a German orchestra on the day of [Russia’s] victory?”
The question upset Bychkov, who believes May 9 is an occasion to mourn “the millions who didn’t have a choice because of that war. A Russian victory, yes, but at what cost? When Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was performed during the siege of St Petersburg, the Germans interrupted their bombardments to listen to the broadcast. They needed this music as much as the Russians. It has nothing to do with right or wrong.”
Apart from that blip, his Cologne tenure has been all gain, helping him to scale new heights of interpretative harmony between “big heart” and “big line”. The orchestra recently voted to extend his appointment but, after 30 years of uninterrupted responsibility for one institution or another, he has decided to taste the freelance life.
As a self-confessed obsessive – music really is his life – it’s hard to imagine Bychkov opting for the slow lane. The fire of ambition still burns brightly. There’s plenty of time and energy left for one last big job: in London, perhaps, should a suitable vacancy arise?
“Why should it be one? Why not five?! The only thing I’m really interested in is what I’m doing now. I like the expression “as if there will be no tomorrow ... ”
Semyon Bychkov conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Birmingham, Manchester and at London’s Roundhouse, January 6-9; www.nyo.org.uk.
‘Lohengrin’ opens at the Royal Opera House, London, April 27; www.roh.org.uk
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