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A candid chat with Semyon Bychkov

Bychkovnorman Semyon Bychkov, former Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra music director, is in the limelight this week. He is being interviewed by well-known music author Norman Lebrecht in "The Lebrecht Interview" on the BBC. Lebrecht was in Buffalo last fall, reading from his book "Why Mahler?" He is on the left in the picture. Bychkov is on the right.

The interview can be heard free on the Internet for the next six days.

There is a lot in it! I will say that right off.

Bychkov talks about his life in Russia under the Communists and what a nightmare it was. He was denied an exit visa, his father was unable to work because the government forbade him, and at one point, musicians ratted him out for being, as he put it, "politically unreliable." It is terrible to think of the situations people faced in that regime.

Finally, mysteriously, he was allowed to emigrate.

Both Bychkov and Lebrecht -- I have had the honor of talking with both of them -- are charming and positive people, and I was impressed by how genuine both of them seemed. They laugh frequently throughout this interview, which definitely has its light moments. It is also a pleasure to listen to their accents! Lebrecht has a beautifully modulated British voice and Bychkov -- well, Bychkov is Bychkov.

It is amazing to hear the maestro tell about how as a penniless emigre from Russia, he stood in front of the Vienna State Opera, gazing at a poster for Wagner's "Lohengrin," longing to see the production, but unable to buy a ticket. Thirty years later, he was back standing in front of the opera house. There was another poster for "Lohengrin," and his name was on it.

What a story. Lebrecht points out how unusual it has been. And yes, they mention Buffalo.

Bychkov has bounced around among orchestras. He spent 10 years at the L'Orchestre de Paris -- an orchestra he brought to Buffalo on tour -- and he now likens the Paris job to a bad marriage. "It isn't to say they were angels and I was a villain, or that I was an angel and they were villains. It was basic incompatibility."

"I never had a game plan," Bychkov says. "Because I never viewed life as a game."

Bychkov also talks about the difficult relationship he had with his estranged brother, Jakov Kreizberg, who was seven years younger than Bychkov and was also a conductor. Kreizberg died earlier this year. In this portion of the interview, I found myself appreciating Lebrecht's style. He is probing, but not rude. He asks the tough personal questions journalists sometimes have to ask. He does it so gracefully. And he knows when he has to stop.

Another sticky subject is the admiration Bychkov, who is Jewish, has for the music of Wagner. "I cannot live without it," he says flatly. "I have to have this music in my life." The conversation goes from there.

Oh, well. I could go on and on! Listen to the interview. Try to make time for it. It's worth it!

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

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Books | Music
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