Semyon Bychkov’s studies with Ilya Musin enhanced his own innate musicality, leading to his winning the 1973 Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. However, two years later he emigrated to the USA.
‘I had to be free,’ he says as a statement of fact. ‘It’s as simple as that. It sounds like a slogan, but it happens to be the truth. I wanted to be free to make my choices, to make my decisions, to take my responsibilities. And I wanted to be free not to lie. One of the realities of the Soviet Union – not the only one, but definitely one – was the existence of the ‘party line’. I was a ‘Rabinovich’ type,’ he says, referring to the hero of many Russian Jewish jokes, a character too clever for his own good but refreshingly resilient.
‘Here’s a lovely story. It happens at a Party meeting in Moscow. In comes the Party boss and tells everybody what the party line is. Then he says, ‘You, Ivanov, what do you think about this?’ Ivanov jumps up, he says, ‘Comrade, I completely agree with the party line.’ ‘Very good. And you, Petrov, what do you think about it?’ Petrov, who is not quite as bright, thinks, and then he says, ‘Comrade, I completely agree with Comrade Ivanov.’ ‘OK. And you, Rabinovich, you’re sitting there saying nothing – don’t you have a point of view?’ Rabinovich says, ‘Comrade Commissar, I have a very definite point of view, but I completely disagree with myself.’ In the Soviet Union, I was often disagreeing with myself!’
Bychkov refutes any suggestion that his view of Western freedom was idealistic. ‘If you say, how could you imagine America? Democracy, all these kinds of concepts – well, why not? I have a healthy imagination. When I look at the music of Beethoven I have to imagine how it should sound, otherwise how could I play it? So do you think I could not imagine what it would be like for people to be free to vote? Or not to vote? For people to be free to say what they thought? Or to choose not to say what they thought?
There is one mistake that I did not make. I did not imagine that life in the West would be complete paradise for everybody, 24 hours a day with no days off! Even though I had not experienced democracy, I did not imagine there could be such a thing as an ideal society. Human nature being what it is, life is going to be complex everywhere. And I was never disappointed.’