Good afternoon to you all, my dear ladies and gentlemen, I cannot tell you how honoured I feel to be now part of this amazing family. I look at this building and I look at these walls, I listen to the sounds produced in this room and in the big hall, and it makes this building, this place, one of the meccas of music. And there are not so many in the world where artists feel that way.
So, how did it all start? Well, exactly 4 years ago, in 2013, I was asked to come to Prague to help the Orchestra to replace one of my colleagues who had to cancel his engagements. It all came while I was conducting in Moscow and I would be then coming here to Prague the week after. As I had heard so much about what was happening in the life of this Orchestra under the leadership of Jiří Bělohlávek, David Mareček, Robert Hanč and all their colleagues I said to myself that, on my way to Paris where I live, I should make a stopover in Prague. And it was a beautiful week of music making, I left a very happy person.
Then maybe six months later, an idea came from the Orchestra and Decca asking me whether I would want to record a symphonic cycle of Tchaikovsky. Well, Tchaikovsky of course has been such an important part of my life ever since I was a boy and it took me maybe 30 seconds to see how promising and how fascinating the combination of myself and this Orchestra could be through the music of Tchaikovsky. Why? Well, this Orchestra is part of a great Slavic tradition and the music of someone like Dvořák is so near in sentiment to the music of Tchaikovsky. This Orchestra, also because of the geography and the history of its nation, has always been part of the Western world. So it’s that combination of Slavic DNA and a Western way of thinking, Western way of looking at music which made me think there was something new to be expressed and new to be said in the music of Tchaikovsky that has been documented for more than a century by very, very great artists and great orchestras. I felt that something that the Russians would express in their music because they’re born with it, would be one way, and something that people in Western orchestras would express in it, would be something quite different. But the combination of the two is what made it something really fascinating and so after 30 seconds, I said yes.
And so 2 years ago in August 2015, we started with the Pathétique Symphony and Romeo & Juliet. It took us one month to realise the first disc. We worked on it together for one week or ten days then I went away. I came back one month later and we finished the recording. Not only that, I could see there was an extraordinary transformation inside the Orchestra that happened during these weeks in between. It was unrecognisable. So in September we re-recorded what we had already recorded in August, because in August, we could not yet do what we could do in September.
And so it was the start, and we continued to meet regularly to continue with this Tchaikovsky Project. Then, this last season, came a very interesting experience. The plan was to record Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, which has had a very difficult life. It has a bad image and is viewed as not a successful work, and still it had to be part of the recording cycle. So I came here in November and we had three days of rehearsals. The Orchestra, maybe some of them, maybe all of them, played the piece once in their life and did not believe in it. But we worked for 3 days and we played it in a concert outside Prague. The concert was OK, not completely matured to be honest. I came back maybe six months later to play the Symphony in the Rudolfinum in a subscription concert and on the first day of rehearsals I could see that in the six months in between something had happened inside the Orchestra and suddenly they believed in the piece. And then they played it as if their lives depended on it. And we played it in the concerts and recorded it, and we know the result.
All of these moments were for me in a way a confirmation and a testimony that this Orchestra is a unique treasure for many different reasons. One of course, is that it has enormous tradition. This tradition comes from the fact that it’s the child of its nation, and music is in the DNA of Czech people. It is something that is as natural as breathing. And the great music of Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček, Martinů and so many others could not have happened if it were not in the country in which people needed and responded to it. So there is that tradition that is inside this Orchestra. That’s one of the things that make it a treasure. The other one is that we are all aware of the fact that in the last decades with the advancement of technology and the contacts that have brought people living in different parts of the world so close to each other, it has also brought a certain anonymity, where you can no longer know who is behind the notes. So, one of the greatest challenges that we face today is to preserve the unique identity of an artistic institution so it does not have the same face as everybody else. There are very few that have managed to preserve it. Czech Philharmonic is one of these Orchestras.
And so as time went by, a beautiful connection has developed between us, artistically as well as humanly. Then in the beginning of June as I was in Munich, the sad news came about the departure of Jiří Bělohlávek who has done so much for this Orchestra, for his country, and who had an amazing life in music. It so happened that a long time before, we had planned for me to be here at the beginning of June and it was the week when this country, the citizens of Prague and the Orchestra’s musicians were saying goodbye to Jiří. I was here. And on that day of the farewell, I saw the extraordinary dignity with which people were saying adieu. One of the orchestra’s musicians was waiting in line with many other people before going on stage to say goodbye. It was afternoon and he was wearing his concert frack. It was his way of honouring someone who had shared music with him, who gave him so much, who gave him moments in life he’d never forget. I thought that was extraordinarily touching. I went on stage, paid my respects and then I went into the auditorium and sat in the row upstairs, just observing how people expressed what they felt. There was great beauty about the whole atmosphere in the auditorium: enormous sincerity and enormous dignity. I was sitting there deeply moved and I said yes, people who are able to express themselves when they say goodbye in such a way also know how to say welcome in a similar way. And into my mind came a letter that Tchaikovsky wrote when he came to visit Prague. His music was already very much loved here. He describes the time when he was on a train and the train stopped in a town before Prague and he was greeted by a whole crowd of local citizens. He was shocked. The train continued and arrived in Prague. When he stepped off the train and on to the platform, a huge delegation of local citizens came, lifted him up in their arms and carried him. They didn’t know the man but they knew him because of his music.
And so we are in June and after the sadness of those days, I conducted concerts here which ended with Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. I came into my dressing room after the final performance and a few minutes later the doors opened, and a huge number of musicians came into my room and Josef Špaček, one of the First Concertmasters, made a speech. I don’t remember everything because I was so bewildered and so emotional, but I do remember the last thing he said: “you bring out the best in us we want you to be our next Music Director and Chief Conductor. We want you to be our daddy.” And I said “My God, I’m not in Russia after all where they always need their Czar Father.”
And from there started the process inside me thinking deeply of how I wanted to live my life. Until the time that I left WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne seven years ago, I had always been responsible for an artistic institution whether it was a symphony orchestra in America, France or Germany, or the Semperoper in Dresden. So I didn’t know life any other way than being responsible for an institution in every way. When I left WDR I wanted to find out how it felt, and it was extraordinary to be free to make music and to live just for music. That was 2010, 2 years later I was asked by the Vienna Philharmonic to celebrate my 60th birthday in the Musikverein. Sometime around that period, I had a realisation that from then on and until the end of my life, nothing would ever come between me and music. And that resolution was so clear and so obvious, and every single day since then confirmed that that was the way to live my life. Until, this happened. Suddenly I had to dig very deep inside myself and ask: “should I? Do I want to change my life and again become responsible and lead an artistic institution?”
But you know, ladies and gentlemen, after this kind of appeal, after this kind of introduction, after everything that I lived with these people on stage where there were moments of such indescribable beauty on that stage that you say to yourself how beautiful it is to be alive and to receive it. And when that appeal comes to you, there is no other choice but to accept gratefully and try to imagine how you can make sure that the world always recognises this Orchestra as a treasure. Not that it was a treasure, but one that continues to be in the present, going into the future. That is the collective responsibility and for us all, to develop and realise in good spirit because that is what music is about.
One of the dreams that I have for this glorious orchestra is that this building will always be filled with creativity, which means that the doors will always be open to those who can create, to all those who help to realise their creations, and for all those who are ready to receive them. I see that as I meet people, including those that I have met today for the first time and others that I have met in the last years, some of whom are part of the institution and others who are supporting it. I see enormous desire and pride, and it’s the kind of pride I actually hear in the music of people like Dvořák. There is something about national identity that people here feel so viscerally, they express it and care about it. And I see the concern and desire to preserve this national identity while being part of the larger world. There should be no contradiction between the two. In that spirit what we as artists must do on our side is to constantly defend, to promote and to care for the music of this country. At the same time this Orchestra must be able to express itself in music that belongs to other cultures. That is one of the great challenges we have, because if we go outside our own borders we want to be able to express a culture that is not ours. We have to try and penetrate each of those cultures in such a way as to be able to express their spirit with authenticity. Everyone can play notes extremely well but, how to play the music of others as if it were your own, that is a big challenge: it is a cultural challenge; it’s an artistic challenge; it is a task of education; it is a matter of commitment; but in the end without it, we would have to live in our own domain and that would not be acceptable to any musician nor to any member of public.
In that spirit, we will go on working to create the kind of programming for this Orchestra that of course includes concerts at home, as well as concerts everywhere in the world where they want to hear us. And, believe me they all want to hear this Orchestra. The programmes will represent plurality of aesthetics and plurality of points of view, as well artists who are committed to a particular composer or style of performing. It doesn’t really matter. As long as they have genuine conviction and something to say, we would like to welcome them. In that spirit, I’m very happy and actually very proud to tell you today that two of my colleagues will be joining us as Principal Guest Conductors and be part of this family. Both are born in this country, both are children of their nation, both have total commitment to the art form, both have international careers and, both belong to a younger generation than myself. They are Jakub Hrůša and Tomáš Netopil.
And if you will allow me just one little remark that I feel very strongly about and which I would like to share with you: I mentioned how I feel about the role that Jiří Bělohlávek played in the history of this Orchestra and, I find it extremely moving that Madam Bělohlávek is with us here today.
Semyon Bychkov, 16 October 2017 at the Rudolfinum in Prague
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