‘Young people have to have opportunities like this’

-Posted on 12.06.2017

Ahead of his performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with Academy Symphony Orchestra on 22nd June, Semyon Bychkov tells Jonathan Freeman-Attwood about the importance of working with Academy students 


Jonathan Freeman-Attwood Semyon, one of the great pleasures at the Academy is your annual visits. We are particularly looking forward to your performance of Mahler’s great ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. Why did you choose this particular piece?

Semyon Bychkov Well, for many reasons. One is just for me personally: it is the kind of piece that stays with one for one’s whole life. I have been conducting the Second Symphony now for 35 years. 

But there is another reason, to do with the nature of the Royal Academy of Music’s orchestra. Young people have to have opportunities like this to come into contact with the greatest pieces in the repertoire, and the most challenging ones. Unless they touch this music early, unless they start thinking about it early, they will have less time to live with it. I think that alone is a very good reason for us to do it.

What do you see as the particular educational outcomes of this project?

The scope of this symphony is extraordinary. It presents enormous technical challenges for a huge group of artists. Its structure and form are incredibly complex. The fluctuation of tempo that was so important to Mahler, which he can only notate with very limited means, is a tremendous challenge. At the same time one has to deal with the philosophical essence of the piece. After all, why did he choose the subject? Clearly, because it was important to him, for this is a question that confronts everyone: ‘Why are we here, and what comes after?’

What message are you asking the musicians to convey?

To treat this music as you treat all other music. It is something deeply existential, and not just an assembly of notes that need to be mastered and played with a wonderful technical perfection (or as close to it as one can). Everything starts with the notes, but the notes are the means for expression and one must start thinking deeply as to what the expression is about. It is filled with Mahler’s own existential messages and reflections. The young people in our orchestra have to start thinking early on about the same things that he was thinking about – and then try to find the expression to reflect those thoughts.

Do you have to think differently about the structure of the piece because most of our students are discovering it for the first time, or do you go in with a clear idea about what you want to impart, whether you’re working with a young person or a seasoned player of the Vienna Phil?

I will go with exactly the same idea of the piece as I do with any orchestra. The realisation is what makes it different. Some of the challenges that they confront playing it for the first time, being the age they are, have already been overcome by other orchestras where the musicians have lived with it longer and experienced different repertoire. But when we speak with any young person we should speak just as we would with an adult. You should never be condescending to young people. You should never assume that just because they are young they are unable to understand – they are. They may relate to it on a different level, which has to do with age, but they have the same sensibility. We are often startled to find out what goes on in their minds – it’s very often something we would never guess. The same approach applies to making music with anyone: you share the concept of the piece and then you have to find a way to reveal the piece to them so they can identify with it, so they begin to understand what the message of the music is. Then you try to help them find ways of expressing it. The means of expression and the capacity for that will vary from orchestra to orchestra and from one age group to another, but the approach is exactly the same.

You are incredibly generous to us with your time, amid a crazy schedule. Why is coming to the Academy such an important part of your life?

I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I have studied with people who helped me to live my life as I should, and as I want to. It is time to return that. I once experienced unbelievable generosity from a very dear friend who gave me a monetary gift, which to him was very small but for me it was a colossal fortune. He said: ‘I want you to accept it because some day someone else will need help from you, and by helping that person you will repay this debt to me.’ You have to give back what you have received, and most of the time it will not be to the same people you received it from.

Why the Royal Academy of Music? Because I was fortunate to start my musical studies at the Glinka Choir School of Music, then continue at the Conservatory in what was then Leningrad. The people there formed me, in a way. The Royal Academy of Music is much smaller in size, but I find that it is just as great in spirit. It is just as great in giving to the students an enlightened idea of why we do what we do, of how important it is. It is a privilege for me to be able to participate in that – and to try to give back, in the measure that I can, what I have received.

Well, you do so magnificently. Thank you, and we look forward to more Mahler, more Strauss, more Tchaikovsky. As much as you can give, we’ll willingly accept.

Watch the full interview here

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