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Conductor Brings Czech Philharmonic Back To His Michigan Roots

Umberto Nicoletti
Conductor Semyon Bychkov

They’re from across the Atlantic, but the Czech Philharmonic’s new conductor, Semyon Bychkov is bringing them to Michigan next week. WKAR’s Jamie Paisley spoke with this now-famous conductor who got his start in Grand Rapids.

1980 was a big year for Semyon Bychkov. Not yet 28 years old, the Russian-born conductor was finishing up his studies in New York City and he was named the conductor of an up and coming orchestra in right here in Michigan.

"As we all know, New York is far from being all of America." says Bychkov. "And so the opportunity of living in the heart of America, which Grand Rapids is, was, was opportunity for me to discover the country from inside rather than the tourist. It is there that I became [an] American citizen in 1983. It is there that I, for the first time, could try all these great masterpieces that I dreamt do, and I wanted to do more than once. From Also Sprach Zarathustra by Strauss, to the 9th Symphony of Beethoven, to the 6th Symphony of Mahler, and so it was one of those indispensable chapters in my life. Those friendships they survived many many years, and they always will remain there."

Bychkov has had a long and fruitful career conducting the major orchestras of the world like the New York and Berlin Philharmonics; but he is just now taking up the mantle as conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic. And in his debut season, he’s bringing that ensemble across the Atlantic to perform in New York, Washington, Chicago, California, and two performances in his old home state of Michigan, where he will also meet up with the man who brought him to the Midwest all those years ago, former board president of the Grand Rapids Symphony, Wally Knack.

"Yes, in fact, Wally Knack will be.. and Becky, his wife, they will be present at both concerts in New York, (uh) and after that they are coming to concert in East Lansing as well." says Bychkov about meeting his old friend.

Also joining the East Lansing concert on October 30th at the Wharton Centerand Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium on November 1stis the cellist and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, Alisa Weilerstein who will be soloist in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto alongside Maestro Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic.

"She recorded Dvorak Cello Concerto with them, but not only. She has performed extensively with the orchestra in Prague as well as on tour, and so somewhere it was very fitting that she comes with us to the states.

"Dvorak, of course, is - if not father of the Czech music, but it is someone that the Czech nation identifies with. In a way in which Russians identify with Tchaikovsky, Americans will identify with Gershwin, and all countries have those who somehow manage to identify the national spirit, its character, through sounds."

While the Wharton Center performance on Tuesday October 30th features a double-dose of Dvorak via his 'New World' Symphony in the 2nd half of the concert, including that gorgeous Largo; Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic will instead pivot to Russia on their Thursday November 1st concert with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and tone poem Francesca da Rimini.

Hear Semyon Bychkov returning to Michigan with the Czech Philharmonic Tuesday October 30th at East Lansing’s Wharton Center and on Thursday November 1st at the Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. More information at WhartonCenter.com and at UMS.org

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