Going bananas in the west

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The conductor Semyon Bychkov, 56, was born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in the last months of Stalin’s rule and emigrated to the US in 1975. His appointments have included music director of the Orchestra de Paris, principal guest conductor of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and, for the past 12 years, chief conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, with which he has toured extensively. He is due to conduct Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo’ at the Royal Opera House, London, from Tuesday. Married to the pianist Marielle Labèque, he lives in Paris and Biarritz, France.

For most of my childhood we lived in a single room within a communal apartment in the centre of St Petersburg, with four other families. We shared a kitchen and bathroom with them and were lucky enough to have one phone, in the corridor. My father was a prominent scientist who spent 25 years working for the army. When he retired he was unable to find another job because he was a Jew. It was a difficult time. But, personally, I did not suffer hardship during my childhood.

I entered the Glinka Academy of Music at the age of seven and that was when I first decided I wanted to become a conductor. I graduated to the Leningrad Conservatoire to study conducting with the great Ilya Musin and met my first wife there. Together we moved into another apartment, on the same street. We had three rooms to ourselves. That was a great luxury.

My career was progressing well until I came to the attention of the KGB as a “free-thinker” and potential émigré. It was when they cancelled my debut concert with the Leningrad Philharmonic that I realised I would have to leave the country. I started taking English lessons. I had lived for 22 years on the same street and had only been abroad once, briefly, to Poland.

The permit to leave the country arrived 30 days after I applied for it. That was very quick. The price was loss of citizenship, so when I left three weeks later I was stateless. The idea was that my parents would follow. It took my mother one year but it was 12 years before my father was able to leave. I still feel his pain at the 12 productive years of his life that were denied him.

I arrived in Vienna with only my tailcoat and briefcase containing some scores, a copy of my birth certificate, and $100. In those days Vienna was the first stop for Soviet emigrants. There were three flights a week from Leningrad and these would be met by HIAS – an international Jewish agency for refugees. They gave us basic financial support and asked where I wanted to go. Not many nations would accept us. There was Israel, of course; or the choice of America, Canada, Australia or South Africa. I chose America because I understood it to have the greatest opportunities for artistic development.

Vienna was extraordinary, I felt elated to be free. Zubin [Mehta] was conducting Lohengrin at the Staatsoper. I remember standing outside watching the audience, because of course I could not afford to go in. And there was the banana incident! I had only eaten banana twice before in my life. I saw a stall selling them and I rushed over and bought a kilo, then rushed over to a bench to eat them all, like a monkey. I noticed my briefcase with all my documents was missing. In my excitement I had left it at the stall. Luckily, it was still there, waiting for me to return to buy another kilo.

After 10 days in Vienna I was transferred to Rome, where I lived for six months while the paperwork was being processed. I rented a tiny room outside the city and would hitchhike into town and roam around. People were so kind. [The conductor] Yuri Ahronovitch – who had also been a Musin pupil – invited me to his concerts and gave me a portable record player.

There were many refugees like myself in Rome. Vitalij Margulis, a pianist I knew in Leningrad, became a close friend. He was the first among us to find a future, with a professorship in Freiburg. During a party to celebrate he took me aside and offered me $20. That was a fortune to me. Of course, I refused. But his eyes welled with tears and he said: “One day, someone will need your help and by helping them you will repay me.”

I was still hoping that I would be accepted in New York. Finally, on August 6 1975, I arrived in the city. Despite the heat of summer, the humidity, the dirt, the stink, it immediately smelled right. I felt, literally, reborn. The New York Association for New Americans, a Jewish charity, helped me enormously.

I was living in a small studio in Queens. I felt accepted immediately and the Mannes College of Music took me as a student and waived tuition fees. It was my first opportunity to have contact with an American orchestra and one year after I arrived I was appointed as their conductor. I subsequently built a wonderful relationship with the Buffalo Philharmonic and from 1980 became their principal guest conductor as well as music director of the Grand Rapids Orchestra in Michigan.

I met such kindness everywhere. Kyriena Siloti, for example, whose father, Alexander, was a cousin of Rachmaninoff and Liszt’s favourite pupil, gave me a piano on which Rachmaninoff had played.

In 1983 I had the privilege of becoming an American citizen. Despite being an unknown musician, I received a letter of welcome from Ronald Reagan, then US president. My two children were born in the US and still live there but in 1987 I was appointed music director of the Orchestre de Paris. Around this time I met the pianist Marielle Labèque, who was to become my second wife. We have an apartment in Paris but the place where I find most harmony is in my family house near Biarritz.

By now I have assimilated the French way of life and mentality and its culture is in my blood – but that did not come overnight. First, I had to learn the language – and also the language of French music. I had always felt closer to the German and Italian repertoire. In truth it was not until I had finished my nine-year tenure with the Orchestre de Paris and spent 10 years working in Cologne that I became truly reconciled with France.

You can only truly get to know a people through the subtleties of their language. Language is the mirror of national character. I speak five languages and my whole body language changes according to the country I am in.

So who am I, after all? A Russian: born into the beauty of St Petersburg. An American: one of many millions who found refuge and acceptance in that country. A Frenchman: being part of a French family and sharing its destiny. A German and an Italian when conducting Wagner or Verdi, Beethoven or Berio. To interpret music truthfully I must identify with the culture and language in which it was born. The roots of my life’s tree might be in one place called Russia but the branches have spread wide and far.

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