When Semyon Bychkov takes the stage for the first of three concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Oct. 10, he will likely be the only former professional volleyball player to have waved the baton for the Fabulous Philadelphians.
Bychkov, who played with Leningrad Dynamo for eight years in the late 1960s and early ’70s, still employs what he learned from that time on a regular basis. “It was an extremely valuable experience for me, especially because of the way volleyball helped to form character,” he said. “It is a team sport that requires working together, which is what one does when working with an orchestra.”
The 61-year-old native of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) says that the physicality of his sporting career has proven to be a boon for his stamina as a conductor. “What sport trains you to do is to pace yourself. You have to train yourself, to make sure you have a sufficient amount to finish. It is the same with conducting: If you have to conduct Tristan and Isolde without any preparation, you will be pretty much wiped out after the first act.”
During a Skype interview from his home in Paris, Bychkov readily acknowledged that having concurrent sports and music career tracks in the Soviet Union was unusual, especially for a Jewish person. Admitted to the Leningrad Conservatory to study conducting with the legendary Ilya Musin at the unheard-of age of 17, Bychkov said that although he never was subjected to anti-Semitism at the conservatory, he vividly recalled what befell two fellow Jewish students who decided to go to a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. They were expelled the next day, despite one of them being the daughter of the composer and Leningrad native Andrey Petrov.
The anti-Semitic policies of the Soviet regime hit home as well. His father was fired from his job as a scientist because of his religion, and he still sounds a little incredulous when recalling:“There were people who wanted to give my father a position in one of the scientific institutions — his qualifications were appreciated and needed — but they couldn’t do so because the Jewish quota had been filled.”
Even though he had been spared the persecution suffered by his father, Bychkov immigrated by himself to the United States in 1975 at the age of 23. The climate of anti-Semitism played a role in his departure, he said, but also “I had to be free to make my own decisions, to express myself — I didn’t believe in the dogma of the communist regime.”
After landing in New York City with no contacts except the phone number of an elderly woman who turned out to be the daughter of Rachmaninoff’s teacher, Bychkov embarked on a career that saw him lead orchestras in New York and Michigan before taking the reins of European companies like Orchestre de Paris, WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne and Semperoper Dresden.
When he takes the stage at Verizon Hall, it will be as a free agent, having relinquished the last of his permanent posts in 2010 in order to devote his time to guest conducting. The ability to go from city to city and style to style seems to stoke his creative juices. “I enjoy seeing old friends who know what I am after,” he explained, adding that he enjoyed coming into new situations to work through favorite pieces. “I just have to find the harmony so that the interpretation isn’t just mine or just theirs.”
His three performances on Oct. 10-12 with the Philadelphia Orchestra will have a distinctly Russian flavor: He will be conducting Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”). This later work of Shostakovich was directly influenced by both the 1905 Russian Revolution — a time of mass political and social unrest that reached across the Russian empire and which engendered the creation of the Duma and the Russian Constitution of 1906 — and the composer’s own difficulties with Soviet leadership because he didn’t adhere to the party line.
For Bychkov, the similarities between the lives of Shostakovich and his own father create a quandary. “If I say that because I have lived in the Soviet Union and I have lived the life of Shostakovich, and I have lived the life of my father, it gives me an insight into the music of Shostakovich. But if I say that, it invites the understanding that if you haven’t lived that, then you can’t really connect to his music. And that is really not true — one does not need to be a Russian in order to interpret Russian music.” He does allow that his Russian heritage gives him an innate understanding of the music’s dialect and of how Shostakovich expresses the human condition through his music.
Conducting Shostakovich may seem like a natural choice for Bychkov, but that was not the case for a long time. “When I left the Soviet Union, I left as a very angry person,” he recalled. “Everything about that lifestyle to which we were subjected, I rejected completely when I emigrated, and there was a period of about three or four years where I couldn’t listen to the music of Shostakovich because everything about it reminded me of what I rejected.”
Eventually, he said, time, distance and perspective allowed him to once again enjoy listening to and performing the composer’s oeuvre. “The music remains the same; it is our connection to the music that changes as we evolve.”
IF YOU GO
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”)
300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia
www.philorch.org;  215-893-1999