Once Semyon Bychkov had settled in the USA, his career took off rapidly. After becoming conductor of the Mannes College Orchestra in New York, he received an invitation to conduct the closing concert at the Spoleto USA Festival. “There I was observed by the festival’s director, Christopher Keene, who was also artistic director of the ArtPark festival in Lewiston, NY. About two weeks after I had returned to New York, he called me and said, ‘Would you like to conduct Il trovatore at ArtPark, with the Buffalo Philharmonic?’ I asked, when is that? He said ‘Rehearsals start in nine days.’
“So I had nine days to learn Il trovatore. That encounter I do remember, because there was such an immediate contact with the orchestra, which had a very interesting tradition, emanating from William Steinberg, Josef Krips, followed by Lukas Foss, Michael Tilson Thomas. The musicians asked for me to be engaged, and so began a relationship, which lasted 10 years. First as associate conductor, soon to be named principal guest. Finally in 1985 I became their music director, succeeding Julius Rudel. It was an orchestra that had a strong affinity with the central European tradition of music, as well as a group of wondrously generous-spirited people.
“My first five years were in New York City, and I understood pretty quickly that it is not typical America. In fact when I was invited to conduct at Spoleto I went to a gas station and stood there for at least an hour listening to people buying petrol, because I was fascinated by the South Carolina accent. Then I had five years as music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, which is Middle America, and that was in every sense an important experience.
“My career in America was entirely fulfilling. I always look at the time I arrived in that country as my second birth. With it came not only professional opportunities but also the privilege of becoming an American citizen. As we don’t live in the sky, and are part of society, we all need to identify with the country in which we live.”
Europe, however, was offering its own invitation for discovery and challenge, one that became tangible in 1989 when Bychkov was invited to become music director of the Orchestre de Paris. “It wasn’t that I was thinking, oh, I want to leave America and get back to Europe to start making music in the good Old World. But by the time that invitation came, I ‘knew the streets’ as the expression goes, in America. I think that’s very important. In whatever you are doing and wherever you are living, you have to know the streets. Otherwise your experience is superficial. Now I needed to get to know new streets, those of Central Europe.”