Born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Semyon Bychkov was 22 when he left Russiato make a new start in the USA. With extensive experience in Europe and throughout the world, he has been a truly international artist for more than a quarter of a century, yet he firmly believes his Russian upbringing is of crucial importance to the man and artist he has become.
‘Those years were vital,’ he says. ‘They were what allowed me, later on, to be enriched by other cultures. I believe that everything we live through can be, and should be, considered beneficial. Whether it is joyful or painful is beside the point.
Even the negative aspects of my time in the Soviet Union were of value. They taught me to distinguish between what is positive and what is negative. And the negatives make you stronger, because if you have the willpower to resist them you are going to be OK.
‘This, I guess, is what people call ‘roots’. I think the deeper the roots and the wider they spread the better. And, of course, you do not grow up alone. I had the extraordinary privilege to encounter people who played an enormous role in my upbringing, musical and personal.’
One of the most significant of these people was the legendary conducting teacher Ilya Musin, who taught in Leningrad/St Petersburg for 65 years. ‘Musin was everything,’ says Bychkov. ‘At 95 years of age he still had something to learn, progress to make.
“He was able to develop a philosophy of conducting that combined the three fundamental questions that exist in everything one tries to do. The first is ‘what?’, the second is ‘why?’, the third is ‘how?’.
Conducting is the youngest musical profession anyway and still not really understood. But a great part of Musin’s genius was that once he had figured out the answers to those three questions for himself, he still took into account that every person has their own physique and personality. One person will be tall with short arms; another will be short with long arms; some people are immediately able to ape someone else’s movements, others are so inhibited that they can never do it. He was able to appreciate the capabilities and the mental constitution of a very individual student. And then he would help this person to achieve what he or she wanted, as opposed to producing another model from the assembly line.
Musin was a very kind man, full of very quiet humour. But occasionally he would get so hot, so mad – and it would last exactly five seconds. He would calm down just as quickly.’