Why did you decide to perform Smetana’s entire cycle Má vlast during the concert season?
When I accepted to become the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, I said to myself, it’s not possible to be the music director of this orchestra and not to integrate Má vlast into my repertoire. I had never conducted it before; not even The Moldau. But I told myself, I cannot come and do it for the first time with the Czech Philharmonic. I first had to absorb the piece. So I performed the whole cycle several times around the world during the past season. Then I can bring my Má vlast to their Má vlast, and we can find a way to do it together.
Last season, you conducted Má vlast in Cologne, Hamburg, Madrid, Cleveland, Amsterdam… In May I had a chance to hear your performance of Má vlast with the Munich Philharmonic. It was a big success with the public, which was unfamiliar with most of the cycle. How did the players of the Munich Philharmonic approach Smetana’s work?
When we began rehearing, I talked to them about it, because it was so new to them that they did not know anything about it. I could see that they were thinking “Oh Smetana… beautiful melodies…”, and it is not only musicians, but people in general who think that way about this music, but that is very superficial. The approach has to be personal, because the music is personal to the nation. The whole time I was studying it, and I was studying it for months, I became obsessed by the piece. And I was trying to understand it: yes, now I know the melodies, I know how it goes. But does it touch me so much? And I finally found the answer for myself. It is about a homeland; for Czech people, it is about their own homeland. But everybody else has a homeland, too. It means roots; it means attachment; it is about the homeland (not only for the Czech nation) as we want it to be. But our homeland is not always the way we want it to be, historically. And that brings many different things with it: love, conflict, and pain. Because when a homeland is not as we want it to be, there is conflict, tension, and pain. And that is what I feel in the music. Later on, in 1918, Czechoslovakia became independent for the first time; it lasted only twenty years, then came the tragedy of the Nazis, and when that was finished, there came the tragedy of the Soviets. I don’t know how things were in 1938 or 1942, but I do know how it was in 1968, when the Soviet tanks drove into the streets of Prague. I was not in Prague. I was in Saint Petersburg (then called Leningrad), but I know what I felt and what the intelligentsia felt: shame. And so it was not until the Velvet Revolution that the country became truly independent – truly free. And forever, I hope.
Why, then, is Má vlast so contemporary? It’s because the conditions we are experiencing today, particularly in Europe, are precisely the same as in the late 19th century. We have a united Europe, but there are so many tensions! And nationalism has become strong again. It is a reaction, because people are worried that because of globalisation, their individuality will not be important anymore. They don’t want to be like everybody else; they want to be the way they are, but they also want to live together. I think the idea of a united Europe is beautiful if it manages to preserve the national identities of all of the members. And if at the same time it is possible for everybody to live together organically. That, in fact, is again why Má vlast is so contemporary. It’s about us and what we are experiencing today. In the end, this is why it touches me so deeply. It’s Má vlast – My Homeland – my own Má vlast.
You have finished your first season with the Czech Philharmonic. How have you been received by the Prague public?
I’ll give you one example, and everything will be clear. It think it was last December. After a concert, I was in my dressing room, and people were coming to greet me, then everybody left, and there was one man, an older person, standing at the door. I said “please come in”, so he did. I had no idea who he was. He looks at me, and then he says: “Mr. Bychkov, you are now ours.” I was shocked. For someone with my life’s story, an emigrant as we all know, when someone tells you “Mr. Bychkov, you are now ours”, that goes straight to my heart. This is how I have felt from the beginning with the audiences in Prague.
And what about the orchestra? Did the players accept you?
They voted for me.
You are known to be a strict, demanding conductor. And every chief conductor wants to work with the best players who can carry out his ideas…
We have to explain what it means when people say I am strict. Maybe it’s true, because I want quality, and I will not accept anything that is not the very best that we can do. And it is relative – today we can do this, but tomorrow we can do better. But in order to do better tomorrow, we must do the best we can today. That is all I want, and nothing else. At the same time, I will never humiliate my individual colleagues. It’s a matter of respect. In the end, the way you can tell that an orchestra and a conductor work well together is how the music comes out in a performance.
Your performance together of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was one of the highlights of last season.
And two days before the concert, they did not know the piece. The last time they had played it was seven years ago, I think. That’s a very long time – just think of how much music they have played since then, and not all of them were there at the time. Some of them had never played it before. So I can say that as an orchestra, two days before the concert, on Monday morning, they did not know the piece. But at the Wednesday concert they played with conviction. It also shows you how talented they are. Sometimes – whenever possible – I arrive in Prague early, and we already rehearse on Friday or even sometimes Thursday for the concerts the week after. I get more time, so I get better quality.[Not a valid template]
Did the cooperation with the orchestra and the concerts of the first season fulfil your expectations?
Yes. Even more than I had expected. Mahler’s Ninth was one of those times when I was really, really impressed and touched by how they managed in two days to perform that monster! And it was also my first time with the piece. I tried it one year ago in London with the students of the Royal Academy of Music. I had planned it four times in my life, and I cancelled it four times. I couldn’t do it.
Was the piece cancelled by management, or was it your decision?
I made the decision to cancel it with my own orchestras. I couldn’t do it. I had planned it, it had been announced, but I couldn’t do it. I had a mental block; there were certain questions in the piece that I could not answer. And then I said to myself, maybe I should have done it when I was much, much younger. Maybe now I’m not young enough anymore, but also not old enough yet. But if I kept waiting, I might never have conducted it. I thought maybe the day would come, and it came.
Another highlight of last season was the performance of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia.
And that was another case when my expectations were surpassed. Last April I came to Prague, and for three days I began rehearsing Mahler’s Second and the Berio Sinfonia for the following season. I remember that first day, with the musicians trying to play those rhythms and saying “what is this? It’s mathematics, not music. I told them, “No, no, it’s music, but it needs time.” So that was April. We came back to it in September for several days. And then in October, finally, we performed it. And by the third performance, they were playing it as if it were in their blood. They were so free with it, and that impressed me very much.
If I recall correctly, it impressed the public as well. Prague’s rather conservative audience received Berio’s Sinfonia with great understanding.
Yes, you’re right, the reception was so warm… The piece was really a success. But you know, we all say audiences are conservative, but in the end, everyone is conservative. What does “conservative” mean? It means you know what you love, and you love what you know. But there is so much that we don’t know. And people with an open mind say “Yes, I want to know something else, something new.” So we must present new things to them. Then they can decide whether they like them or not. But we must present new things with conviction, because we believe in doing it. And then, some people will say they love it and want to hear it again.
In the 2019/2020 season, we can look forward to another work by Berio, Rendering.
That piece is an absolute miracle. Three weeks before he died, Schubert started to write a symphony, and he left sketches. In about 1988 we were in London, and we had dinner with Luciano Berio, who was a very close friend. We had dinner, and after that, when it was time to go, he asked me: “Do you have time? I want to show you something”. We went to the piano, and he showed me a few pages of Schubert’s sketches. He explained to me what they were, and then tears came to his eyes. He was so moved. He was working on the sketches and composing his piece Rendering based on them. And he told me: “Imagine what all Mozart composed during the last five years of his life. And those were five years that Schubert never got. Then Berio wrote the composition, and finally I could conduct it. It is music the goes far into the future! When it is Schubert, it sounds like Schubert in all of his majesty, but then Schubert goes away, and here comes Berio, very mysterious. And then from there Schubert comes back. And the whole composition is like this: Schubert going into Berio, and Berio going into Schubert.
Another very eagerly anticipated concert is the performance of the Second Symphony by the French composer Henri Dutilleux…
He was another of my close friends. He did not compose a lot of music, but what he did compose is tremendous. This symphony is called Le Double because it has a chamber ensemble of soloists surrounded by the orchestra. It will actually be a programme of “doubles”: also Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Tympani, and the Martinů Concerto for Two Pianos and String Orchestra.
A few months later, there will be another premiere of a work that is unfamiliar in Prague: the Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch by Detlev Glanert.
It’s a very new piece. It was premiered at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam one and a half years ago. I flew to hear the performance. It is eighty-two minutes of music with no intermission. Two choirs, four soloists, a narrator, organ, and orchestra. Sitting in that performance, I found myself very often with tears in my eyes because it was so beautiful.
This past year, you went on several tours with the Czech Philharmonic. What impressions, ideas, and future plans did you come away with from those tours?
The main thing for me was the time I spent together with the players. We were together in Germany, in America – we played in New York’s Carnegie Hall, in Washington, in Chicago, on the West Coast… I saw how the people there were mesmerised by the sound of the Czech Philharmonic. It was something they had never heard before. It’s something different. And we must protect this different identity. In the sound and the way that we speak, the language of music can tell a story. And I saw how people were responding to it. It’s one thing to know about it from recordings, but it’s another thing to experience it. There is no substitute for that.