Conductor of the Year:
Semyon Bychkov

By Clive Paget

The Soviet-born conductor turns 70 this year, but his early life reads like a novel by John le Carré. A tireless advocate for his art, his fresh and spontaneous-sounding interpretations are meticulous in their attention to detail. But don’t be deceived, it will have taken hours of study to ensure that every bar rings true.

2023 Muscial America Conductor of the Year:<br>Semyon Bychkov
Photo © Marco Borggreve

“We have no right to remain silent and watch history repeat itself…” The words are Semyon Bychkov’s, written on February 24, the day Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. “To remain silent today is to betray our conscience and our values, and ultimately what defines the nobility of human nature.”

And Bychkov should know. Born in St. Petersburg in 1952, he lived and studied in the Soviet Union for 22 years before emigrating to the United States. One of the world’s finest exponents of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, he’s proud of his Russian cultural heritage: “Its language, its noble traditions are in my blood. They always have been and always will be,” he says. But as a cosmopolitan European with a home on France’s Basque coast, he’s equally acclaimed as an interpreter of Debussy, Ravel, Strauss, Wagner, and Mahler. His new music credentials include noted premieres of works by composers such as Thomas Larcher, Detlev Glanert, and, most recently, Julian Anderson.

As a conductor, he’s meticulous in his attention to detail with a knack for making the familiar sound newly minted through interpretations born of five decades of experience. He never tires of interrogating the music he loves and is an endlessly enthusiastic advocate for his art. In conversation, he’s a born raconteur and a most charming interview subject, a deep thinker whose innate humanity shines through with a warm and palpable charm.

Earlier this year we discussed his new recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. When I complimented him on his way with the opening theme—a tricky two bars that can sink an interpretation from the outset—he explained how hard he’d worked to get the moment just right. “You have no idea how much blood that caused me—blood, sweat, and tears. First in my own home, for months, trying and thinking, ‘Okay, I have it now,’ only the next day to discover that I don't. And finally, it clicked.”

That intensity of preparation is part and parcel of a Bychkov concert. The elegance of his phrasing and fertility of his musical imagination is matched by an unerring grasp of sonic architecture. Hours of study ensures that every bar rings true, yet there’s a freshness and spontaneity too. Nothing about a Bychkov performance ever seems set in stone.

“Everything in music is about transition—as it is in life,” he explains. “How you get from one day to the next, and how you get from one note and one bar to the next. The music is the same, but we change. As you go through life, you may not know more of the answers, but experience means you get to know more of the questions.”

Growing up under the Soviet system, Bychkov quickly became an expert at questions. “I became an inner dissident very early on,” he shares, recalling a winter evening in Leningrad when his father, an army research scientist, took the 12-year-old for a walk. “Out of the blue he explained to me the reality; that what was being said did not correspond to what was being lived. That opened my eyes.”

As a gifted pianist, Bychkov made his first public appearance aged six playing Grieg’s March of the Trolls, an homage to fantastical beings in which the youngster believed implicitly, he admits. Two years later he entered the prestigious Glinka School and caught the conducting bug. Managing to join the legendary Ilya Musin’s orchestral conducting course at the Leningrad Conservatory was a triumph of talent over adversity. “There were 78 of us applying, and I was a baby,” Bychkov remembers. “I explained to Musin my dilemma: if I fail, I’ll be drafted into the army, and on top of that I’m Jewish. He said, ‘well, try it,’ so I did.”

Winning the single coveted place was a significant victory for the 17-and-a-half-year-old, but a time was coming when Bychkov’s father was unable to get a job and was told openly that the quota of Jews was filled. With the writing on the wall, the student conductor decided to apply to leave the U.S.S.R.

The story of his visa application and interview—two KGB Generals, a dossier, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder—reads like a John le Carré novel, but in March 1975, Bychkov and his first wife finally left the Soviet Union. After brief stints in Vienna and Rome they arrived in New York. “In spite of the dirt and the heat, it smelled right,” he says. “That first evening I found myself on an overpass in Queens seeing cars going by underneath me that looked like boats, they were so huge. I was a refugee, but there was a support infrastructure and many episodes of being helped in big and small ways.”

His rapid and steady rise to preeminence included important U.S. appointments: chief conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. By 1984, he was debuting with the Royal Concertgebouw and New York Philharmonic. Over the decades, he has been music director at Orchestre de Paris (1989-1998), chief conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester in Cologne (1997-2010), and in 2011 was named Günther Wand Conducting Chair by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in recognition of another powerful artistic bond. Having conducted every major orchestra and in every major opera house, in 2018 Bychkov embarked on his latest adventure as chief conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic.

“The foundation of all music-making is chamber music. Whether it is made by two people or 120, it should make no difference,” he expounds. “With an orchestra, each musician has to know what the others are doing, which means they have to get to know the score. But they don’t have the full score, so it is for me to reveal who needs what at any given time. Once that has penetrated the group, the less I have to conduct, the happier I get.”

Although he watches football and enjoys Downton Abbey, Bychkov has no hobbies because, as he says, “I am doing what I love.” But surely, married to a French woman—pianist Marielle Labèque—he must be a gourmand, I ask? “Oh yes, of course,” he chuckles. “It’s one of the three greatest things in life… I’ll let you figure out the other two.”

And is he a workaholic? “Only in a sense that everything matters, every detail must be integrated into a coherent interpretation to reveal the composition as I understand and feel its spirit,” he replies. “This is what one searches for in the rehearsals: the organic unity of notes and the colleagues who play them, so there is no gap between what I hear inside me and what emerges in a real sound. It is a lifelong process and a source of joy, of hearing something that sounds convincing at a given moment.”

“The quality of technical realization is indispensable during the time of preparation. Yet in a live performance it is its spirit, its emotional intensity, that are decisive in order to touch the listeners and justify inviting them to the performance. An occasional accident only serves to remind us that we are human after all, and will never undermine the value of an event, music itself being far above those who try to serve it.”

Clive Paget is Features Editor for the Musical America International Directory. A former Editor of Australia’s Limelight Magazine, he now writes and reviews for, among others, Musical America, Opera News, Gramophone, and BBC Music Magazine. Prior to his move to Australia, he developed new music theater projects for London’s National Theatre.