If anyone can lay claim to the moniker “citizen of the world,” it is Semyon Bychkov. Born in Russia, the conductor, who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic starting Nov. 15, now boasts U.S. citizenship, but lives in Paris with his wife, pianist Marielle Labèque, among other places all over Europe.
It’s been a long road from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to the outdoor cafe across from Lincoln Center, where he meets for an interview fresh from his performances with both the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic.
As someone the KGB once deemed “politically unreliable” — following an interrogation by that notorious Soviet agency — in 1973, Bychkov was blocked from a scheduled conducting debut with the famed Leningrad Philharmonic. Being a Jew, to boot, ultimately ended his career in his native land.
“It’s complicated, though,” he said. “My being a freethinker had nothing to do with being Jewish. But my liberal views came to attention, as those things do. Later, Jewish was no good either. It was a sensitive subject. Nothing exactly black and white. Yes, there was plenty of anti-Semitism, but despite that, I was accepted as the youngest person [at 17] at the [Leningrad] Conservatory, for its single conducting spot.”
What’s more, in 1973 he won the Rachmaninoff Conducting Competition’s first prize: a debut concert leading the Leningraders.
But the concert never happened. His event was canceled after authorities “viciously” attacked him in print. What would happen going forward became clear. “So I quickly started learning English and sought emigration, helped along by an international Jewish Agency for Refugees,” Bychkov said. Four months later, in 1974, he landed in Vienna “with nothing but my tailcoat, a briefcase with some scores and $100; this after living for 22 years on the same Leningrad street.”
But the budding conductor discovered a network of refugee musicians. After his first brief stop in Vienna were six months in Rome, where he lived in a tiny room outside the city and hitchhiked to concerts given by Russian friends.
Bychkov finally received his immigration papers and arrived in New York on Aug. 6, 1975, “in the heat, the humidity, the dirt, the stink — it immediately seemed right. I felt literally reborn.” Especially so, with the support of the New York Association for New Americans, a former agency of the United Jewish Communities (now The Jewish Federations of North America).
Truly, that was Bychkov’s second beginning. Mannes College waived its tuition fees for the gifted conductor and quickly put him in charge of its orchestra. Next came a post with the Buffalo Philharmonic — by which time his then-wife had given birth to their two children, who still reside in the United States.
Since the 1980s, he’s held important orchestra directorships in Cologne and Paris, among others, and piled up rave reviews throughout the West. There was even a nod by Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan for Bychkov to take over the Berlin Philharmonic — a notoriously political organization, so it did not come to pass. (The mere mention by Karajan of a preferred candidate carried a downside.)
Now 60 and free from the obligations of a tenured podium, he’s in demand as a guest conductor for major orchestras worldwide. He’s currently on an American tour that includes Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as Los Angeles, and then on to the orchestras and opera houses of Berlin, Moscow, London, Amsterdam, Vienna and Rome.
In Los Angeles, Bychkov will take on Bruckner’s mighty Symphony No. 8. “It’s all about Bruckner’s relationship with God,” he said, “a complex and confrontational thing. And it would be so even for the pope. In the end, though, there is doubt. No one will ever convince me that doubt does not exist.”
Bychkov said he is unattached to any belief system and never had a Jewish education. He admits that some would not even regard him as a Jew, as he never practiced or learned the religion.
“But we are what we are. And I’m proud of being Jewish,” he said. “Still, that is not a factor in one’s music making. You don’t have to be Catholic to conduct a convincing Verdi Requiem. You don’t have to be a Jew to conduct a profound Mahler.”
What it takes, he asserts, is an ear that hears the composer’s voice. In the Shostakovich memoir “Testimony,” for instance, Bychkov says he can’t verify whether biographer Solomon Volkov based the book on an actual interview with the composer.
“But when I conduct his Fifth Symphony, every word of those quotes I hear in the music.” Indeed it was Bychkov’s conducting of the condemned work that marked him, back then in the Soviet Union, as blasphemous by the ruling Politburo.
In October, The New York Times applauded the conductor’s “ear” for Shostakovich: “Bychkov led … a brilliant performance [of Symphony No. 11] … one that sizzled … and unfolded with breathtaking force.”
Also, in the ear, are languages — the worldly conductor speaks five — and describes himself as obsessive, although one could simply say he’s all-in. Multiple identities would define him well. He recalls having summed it up this way:
“My whole body language changes according to the country I’m in. So who am I, after all? A Russian, born into the beauty of St. Petersburg. An American, one of many millions who found refuge and acceptance in the United States. A Frenchman, being part of a French family and sharing its destiny. A German and an Italian when conducting Wagner or Verdi, Beethoven or Berio. The roots of my life’s tree might be in one place called Russia, but the branches have spread wide and far.”
Bychkov conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Fri., Nov. 15 through Sun., Nov. 17 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave, downtown. For more information, call (323) 850-2000 or visit laphil.com.