In addition to his permanent posts in America and Europe, Semyon Bychkov has enjoyed fruitful and fulfilling relationships with many of the world’s great orchestras, including the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.
Bychkov’s first three recordings were made with the Berlin Philharmonic. “When I first came to them in 1985 it was Karajan’s orchestra, with several musicians who had played under Furtwängler. Some of the current players were not even born when I conducted the orchestra for the first time. They are a very open-minded group, with a great tradition, but eager to have something new, a fresh experience from which they can learn. These are people with whom it is a joy to make music.”
The San Francisco Symphony is an orchestra to which Bychkov has returned after a break. “The city has magnificent public. When we play the halls are full – people react with great vivacity to all kinds of music, from classical to contemporary.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is another American orchestra for which Bychkov has particularly high regard. “It is a jewel. I admire their collective and individual intelligence. Their professionalism is legendary, and it is an orchestra that has a real personality, a style and a signature. That signature has become more complex in recent years.
“They were a great orchestra before Solti. He was a great conductor before them. This didn’t necessarily guarantee that they would be great together. But the relationship worked. What Daniel Barenboim was able to achieve after Solti, and it is a great credit to him, is to soften a bit their sound and make them realize that softness is not necessarily a weakness, without losing the spectacular brilliance for which they are celebrated.
Bychkov is currently working with two Bavarian orchestras, the Munich Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The first time he conducted the latter – “an orchestra of great soul” – was in 1986, when the ensemble bore the distinct stamp of its former music director, Rafael Kubelik. “I agreed to conduct Dvorák’s New World – very much a Kubelik piece. At the first rehearsal they gave me a performance of it – not a rehearsal, but a performance. For the first time in my life I felt that the orchestra were able to throw as much power and energy at me as I did at them!”
This question of a “balance of power” between conductor and orchestra is, for Bychkov, a matter of whether the conductor has earned the right to be on the rostrum. “Every single collective – not only musical collective – will sense whether the person standing in front of them, whether making a speech or making music, possesses the necessary qualities and qualifications. The first of these is genuine conviction in what one does, says, or demands; the second is an obsession with the subject, in my case music; and the third is a kind of self-abnegation, subjugating the ego to what you are doing. You are not important. The subject is. When they sense that anything standing in the way of your goal is going to be put aside, they will always come with you. Because they are often starved of this level and intensity of conviction.”