The Vienna Philharmonic, which will give its first-ever performance in Santa Barbara Tuesday night, turns up on pretty much every list of the world’s top five orchestras. But conductor Semyon Bychkov, who will lead the ensemble at the Granada, isn’t a fan of such rankings.
“Every orchestra has a different personality,” he said in a telephone interview from his Paris home. “It’s a question of chemistry. That’s why it’s pointless to classify orchestras in order—‘This one is number one; this one is number seven.’ They’re all different, so the music will inevitably sound different.”
Asked to define the personality of the Vienna Philharmonic, the articulate and personable Bychkov hesitates momentarily. “It is difficult to say it in words,” he said. “You end up using expressions that sound trite, but they happen to be true.”
Then he plunges in.
“The singing quality of the Viennese strings kills you, even when you’re listening to a concert being streamed on the Internet, where you don’t have high-fidelity sound,” he said. “It’s one of their trademarks, and it’s extraordinary. Another is their unbelievable flexibility of expression. Because they’re an opera orchestra most of the time, they’re used to playing with singers. So they’re used to switching gears without warning.
“Then there is how they phrase the music. Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler—they are all part of their tradition. It’s their native culture. This makes them so distinctive. It cannot be imitated; it’s something that is simply theirs. Also, because they play opera all the time, they view musical works as stories that need to be told. When they play symphonic music, they will still make it theatrical, as if a story is being told. That’s what makes music really expressive.
“These are people of tremendous culture; they know what’s behind the notes. Their musical sensitivity is extraordinary. When things are going well, they play like they’re possessed.”
Bychkov will lead the orchestra in three works from three different eras: Schubert’s Second Symphony (which has a Mozartian feel), the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (the epitome of Romanticism), and Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin (a rhythmically exciting 20th-century masterpiece).
“The music very much reflects the history of the orchestra—its character, its personality, its tradition,” he said. “You can’t get any more Viennese than Schubert. Wagner wasn’t born in Vienna, but he was a dominant figure there. Bartók comes from a country [Hungary] that used to be part of the Austrian empire, so there is a connection [between the composers], even though they are separated in time. They share the same genetics.”
The orchestra was founded in 1842, and throughout the decades, it has premiered many works now in the standard repertoire. Bychkov said this history doesn’t intimidate him, but added, “I do feel a sense of responsibility. The sense of tradition with this orchestra is really quite extraordinary.”
The Philharmonic’s musicians “expect to be offered two things,” he said. “One, they love to hear your ideas, your vision of the work. They’re looking for that. The second thing, which almost sounds like a contradiction but is not, is they also look to you to listen to what they do and let them play. You have really great musicians in this orchestra. They have a lot to say. They bring their own personality, their own way of phrasing. A clarinetist or oboist may like to phrase [a certain passage] in a way differently than I expected. If it is convincing, I’m very happy to go with it. When [this process] is successful, it becomes a harmony of their vision and mine.
“To get there, one needs time. Initially, they want my ideas. I give it to them, and they run with it. It’s like giving them the ball. They run with the ball. But [unlike sports adversaries] we all run in the same direction.”
There’s a reason Bychkov likes sports metaphors: Growing up in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the Russian native played professional volleyball even as he studied conducting. Not surprisingly, he views making orchestral music as “a team effort,” adding that, “as a conductor, I am both a coach and a player. That’s quite an extraordinary position to be in.”
He immigrated to the U.S. in 1975, at age 22, enrolling at the Mannes College for Music. Over the following decades, he gradually built a reputation as a world-class conductor, leading virtually all of the world’s great orchestras. He recalls performing in Santa Barbara with the Orchestre de Paris in 1991; CAMA’s records show he also led the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne at the Arlington in February 2002.
The players themselves run the Vienna Philharmonic. The fact that they asked Bychkov to conduct this international tour says much about their respect for his ability and their appreciation of his collaborative approach to music making. “When the players are valued as important individual artists, not just [functionaries expected to] carry out what they’re asked to do, a concert becomes a fantastic experience,” he said. “That’s something an audience will subconsciously feel.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures, in association with CAMA, presents the Vienna Philharmonic Tuesday, March 1, at 8 p.m. at the Granada (1214 State St.). Tickets are $53-$153 ($28 for UCSB students). Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.