The Semyon Sessions


27th April 2017

Interview with Tutti Magazine

Tutti-magazine:   You conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in their annual ball at the Musikverein, the day before yesterday.  What did you take away from the experience ?

Semyon Bychkov: It was an extraordinary experience, it is hard to find words to describe it.  The women and the debutantes were dressed in sumptuous ball gowns and the atmosphere made it feel as if one were in the 19th century.  For someone like me who sometimes wishes they’d lived in the 18th or 19th centuries, the evening reminded me of a style approrpriate to a particularly beautiful past.  As I’ve said many times to your colleagues,  I would be very happy if this beautiful and joyful spirit could be shared by as many people as possible and offer an alternative to the vulgarity and violence which occur daily in the world today.

As I was leaving on tour with the Vienna Philharmonic, I arrived to drop my things off at the Great Hall of the Musikverein in the afternoon – the following day we would be playing in Hamburg at the Elbphilharmonie  –  the Hall was deserted and the view was so extraordinary that I couldn’t resist taking some photographs :  all the stalls seats had been removed and replaced by flowers and tables.  Of course I also noticed the wall covered with photographs of conductors who had worked with the orchestra, and thought: «So here is the conductors’ wall of fame»… That evening, immediately after our concert, everything that had been installed was moved to the large empty space under the floor of the Hall.  This famous empty space surrounds the Hall on every side and is part of the mystery that creates the legendary acoustics of the Musikverein.  Once the space was completely cleared,  people began to dance and the atmosphere with extremely joyful.  Different parts of the Musikverein were filled with the sounds of different styles of music, from disco to waltzes and polkas. The ball started at 10pm and finished around 6am in the morning. I didn’t stay until the end but, speaking to you, I’m still under the spell of that evening and struck with admiration for those who worked non-stop to transform the place in such a short space of time.  The New Years’ Concert, which is broadcast across the whole world, gives you an idea of the type of events that are hosted by the Musikverein. But, especially at this time of year, it is only one of many events.   The only important event that isn’t at the Musikverein takes place at Schönbrunn Palace. I played with the Vienna Philharmonic there in May 2016 and something in the region of 150,000 people came to the concert, while another 100,000 couldn’t get in. The crowds spilt over into the gardens… In short: this is what music means to Vienna!

Is it good for your own internal sense of well being to alternate between conducting light and dramatic music, such as Tchaikovsky’s?

Absolutely, because diversity is what keeps you sane.  You can’t live with tragedies and extreme emotions entirely.  Lightness is also a part of being alive. The balance between these two extremes is very important.  But  I’m not good at achieving this balance over the course of a season – it’s a goal that is easily forgotten when, like me, you are obsessed with musical masterpieces, such as the repertoire that I conduct most of the time.  It is necessary however to identify with these profound works and live through them. It is the same for actors, who have to immerse themselves in a role in order to become the character they are playing. Without this process, it just doesn’t work… So, although it is not easy music to play, I benefit from the respite that light music offers me.  A simple waltz contains so many details that need to be understood and  fine tuned before it can be played correctly. And, to achieve this, a hundred musicians have to breathe in unison.  In Vienna, this kind of music is in the musicians’ blood.  Because of this, there are certain things that you don’t have to explain because they feel them instinctively.  But there are so many other elements to fine tune that make rehearsals necessary, even for the short Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai which the musicians really wanted to play.  This Ball marked the Vienna Philharmonic’s 175th birthday and Nicolai was one of its founders so this splendid eight-minute Overture –  filled with so many beautiful musical ideas – was performed as a hommage.  I was really happy because we managed to reach a state of pure grace.

To read the rest of the interview, please download the full text here.

The link to the original French interview can be found here: