The Semyon Sessions

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20th August 2020

Semyon Bychkov speaks to El País

Semyon Bychkov: “Perfection depends on what you are looking for”
Lockdown has made the conductor addicted to Beethoven and a tour of northern Spain is planned
Jesús Ruiz Mantilla

Only conducting music that he can’t live without.  Lockdown has made him addicted to Beethoven and he is touring northern Spain with the Euskadiko Orkestra and the Third Symphony (Eroica) starting on Saturday in San Sebastián and continuing in Santander. The combination of interpretation and human discussion has the musicians dazzled. Semyon Bychkov (born in St. Petersburg, 67 years old) is one of those rare great conductors whose charisma depends on rigour and exigency with the best possible manners: an example of artistic integrity and fundamental goodness.

Question: Beethoven seems to be perfect composer for Covid-19. The pandemic has fallen into his centenary. Is it fate?

Response:  It’s the spirit we need. This has been a crisis that has affected our morale. His soul belongs to our time, because Beethoven suffered more than anyone can imagine. If you read his Heiligenstadt testament, you will  see:  the greater the damage, the greater the effort to overcome it.

Question: Is he an influencer from the grave?

Response: His genius is commensurate with the degree of his feelings. He magnifies everything: the pain and also the happiness in overcoming it. That was the case with Beethoven. He was hyper in everything; nothing was normal or predictable. That’s why his music speaks to us today so clearly, because we are predisposed to receive it.

Question: Even more than great, now we miss what we used to consider normal.

Response: Yes, it’s absolutely that. The old normality is our dream. I spent lockdown in the house I have in the French Basque country. I made it a condition of my return to conducting that it be a Beethoven programme.  And, I notice that our audiences need it too. It’s a virus of another character.

Question: We miss the old normality, but weren’t we already confused, defeated, manipulated and anxious?

Response: Very much so. For the first two concerts in Frankfurt, they asked me for a kind of declaration of principles and I wrote this: “We must stop alienating nature and become conscious once again that we are part of it… we have been treating it appallingly for so long, using what it offers and forgetting to say thank you. This must change.”

Question: In that spirit, wouldn’t that song to nature that is the Pastoral Symphony have been a better fit?

Response: For me it is the most difficult of the symphonies. I didn’t dare conduct it until I was 40. I was frightened that I would spoil it. The others are more abstract, but this one is concrete and consequently even more complex.

Question: Are there any composers you can do without?

Response: I don’t conduct music that I can live without. I can live without Prokofiev, although I like to listen to him.

Question:  With Tchaikovsky you created a special project. We know that Russians can show us many things about him, but it is scary that the Minister of Culture at the Kremlin wouldn’t recognize that he was a homosexual: he simply said that he hadn’t found the right woman. Isn’t that worrying?

Response:  That was in 2014, the 21st century! Tchaikovsky is God to the Russians, like Verdi to the Italians. And God must be perfect. The story that some people created for him claim that he was not a homosexual, nor did he commit suicide.

Question: Speaking of gods. Jesus Christ didn’t find the right woman either.

Response: Maybe he wasn’t perfect… The discussion is absurd. Besides, they weren’t instant legends. They had to fight hard and assert themselves to become myths.

Question: You were born in Russia, moved to the United States and have a house in the French Basque country. How does the quietness of lockdown affect you?

Response: I have my roots. Someone once told me that I had a low centre of gravity.

Question: Like an astronaut?

Response: It is really very simple. The thing that keeps me focused and rooted is music: not using it, but serving it. It obsesses me. It keeps me fit and humble.

Question: Humble? Forgive me, but that is not how I think of conductors.

Response: Why not? Humility is about recognizing that the greatness of the works and the composers are above everything. It has nothing to do with being weak. It’s knowing who you are in relation to a Beethoven or a Mahler symphony and giving yourself to it with all your strength. There are works that I haven’t wanted to face because I don’t feel prepared. I had great teachers who put it in my head that the more you are given, the more will be asked of you.

Question: What about perfection or the ideal?

Response: You seek convincing expression which feels perfect at every moment. Then it evaporates. The next day it changes. Inspiration appears at a certain moment and then goes away.

Question: It must be exhausting.

Response: No! It’s absolute happiness!

Question: When was the last time you found it?

Response: I don’t remember. We look for it continually; it appears and we recognise it but you never know when it will come. You know the feeling of elation it brings when you find it, but not exactly the moment that it happens. It is something mystical and mysterious. It’s like a toothache. You know you’ve had it but you don’t remember on which side.

The link to the original Spanish interview can be found here: https://elpais.com/revista-de-verano/2020-08-09/semyon-bychkov-la-perfeccion-va-adecuandose-a-lo-que-buscas.html