Ahead of Semyon Bychkov’s visit to Birmingham, Terry Grimley talks to the Russian conductor.
Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov gets 2009 off to a flying start next week, directing the National Youth Orchestra in concerts in Birmingham, Manchester and London.
His last professional task before Christmas was to call me from the south of France to talk about this, his debut with the NYO. And the obvious place to start was with his choice of programme.
Strauss’s Alpine Symphony seems a natural choice for a youth orchestra – 160 young players getting a good work-out climbing up and down the mountain – but partnering it with Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia is a real surprise.
Dating from 1968 this is a quintessentially 60s work, with its eclectic cut-and-pasted mix of cultural references, from Mahler to Samuel Beckett, from Martin Luther King to contemporary political graffiti, and its eight vocal parts (performed here by London Voices) originally written for those masters of 60s easy-listening, the Swingle Singers.
Never exactly a standard repertoire piece, the Sinfonia could well be regarded with suspicion by some who might think of it as little more than an ephemeral curiosity.
But Bychkov, who recorded it in 1994 with the Orchestre de Paris, takes a completely opposite view, describing it as “one of those pivotal works of our time”, comparable with Beethoven’s Eroica or the works of Wagner.
“Luciano was always pointing out that the work is not a collage, it’s simply a voyage through musical history. He was very much part of the postwar avant-garde in classical music, but he never lost or denied his roots in the music of the past.”
Before making his recording, Bychkov had discussed the work in detail with Berio, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship. This came about through Bychkov’s wife, the pianist Marielle Labeque, half of the celebrated piano duo with her sister Katia, for whom Berio wrote his concerto for two pianos.
They were still teenagers when, bowled over by hearing Berio conduct a performance of the Sinfonia in Paris, they asked him to write a concerto for them.
“It’s a very endearing little story,” says Bychkov about his own first meeting with the composer, who died in 2003.
“In 1987 he conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, and I was at that time still conducting the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra. As Marielle and I were already together I had the chance to go to Cleveland, where they were playing the concerto for two pianos. I got there just in time to hear the performance and I was in the dressing room. Luciano had difficulty putting on his tie and I helped him.
“We ended up having a conversation about politics, and Luciano and I completely disagreed with each other. He was an Italian communist and in 1987 ‘perestroika’ was just becoming a fashionable word but communism had not yet collapsed. I completely disagreed with him because I had lived it.
“When we left, Marielle and Katia said to me, ‘That’s the only way with Luciano to shut him up. If you stand up to him he will respect you’.
“Later it became a very beautiful and very affectionate friendship, in many ways thanks to Marielle and Katia. I kind of inherited it.”
The personal connection to Berio is another reason why Bychkov wanted to share the Sinfonia with the NYO.
“It’s a work which for me is one of the most important in my career which I have recorded, because I was able to discuss it with him, to have his insight. What could be better than sharing that with young musicians who are coming into the musical world? At that stage they have to be introduced to great masterpieces, so they will have many more years to live with them.
“The other thing is that just as the Sinfonia is a voyage through the history of music, the Alpine Symphony is a voyage through life, because the trip to the Alps is a metaphor for a life-cycle. The moment we get away from a descriptive approach to it we realise how incredibly complex it is. It starts from birth and ends with death, so in a way we have two voyages.”
Born in Leningrad in 1952, Bychkov is well known for his interpretations of Shostakovich, having recorded several of the symphonies. But unlike Berio, he did not personally know the great Soviet composer.
“I was lucky to have worked in the time when he was alive and I have observed him from a few feet away, but I did not dare to speak to him! I was very shy and very young at the time. I have heard a great deal about him from people like Rudolf Barshai, the conductor who premiered the 14th symphony.
“Rostropovitch said to me, ‘It’s amazing – Shostakovich died in 1975 and the moment he left us he became even more gigantic than he has been’. I feel that of course with Shostakovich, and I feel it with Luciano.”
A resident of Paris, his main musical base for the last decade has been Cologne, where he has been chief conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester since 1997. He takes pride in the fact that the players voted by an overwhelming majority to extend his most recent contract, although he renewed it for a limited period and will move on in 18 months.
“After 11 years our relationship is as warm and affectionate as it was at the beginning. In fact, it has grown. 0n June 12, 2010, when I will conduct my last concert with them as chief conductor, no one will say ‘Thank God he’s finished!’.”
In February Bychkov and his orchestra will undertake an eight-concert tour of Japan, and later in the spring he will return to London to conduct seven performances of Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House.
Next week’s concerts with the NYO follow a week of intensive rehearsals during a residential course at Denstone College near Uttoxeter.
Semyon Bychkov conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at Symphony Hall next Tuesday at 7.30pm. The programme also includes Bow-Wave, a short new piece by Peter Wiegold inspired by Berio’s Sinfonia. (Box office: 0121 780 3333; under 25s can buy tickets for £5).