Oct. 25 2018 12:03 AM

Locals recall Czech Philharmonic maestro’s time in Michigan



Let’s be respectful here. The once-ina-blue-moon local appearance of one of Europe’s great orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic, led by one of the century’s great maestros, Semyon Bychkov, is not to be taken lightly. The Czech musicians are bound to pour their hearts and souls into the music of Antonin Dvorak, the most beloved of Czech composers.

But there’s a local dimension to Tuesday’s rare orchestral extravaganza, and it involves beer and hot dogs.

Ava Ordman, MSU trombone professor and principal trombonist of the Lansing Symphony, still has incriminating photos of maestro Bychkov in her backyard, from about 1980.

“We had a keg of beer, drinking and hanging out,” Ordman said. “We were all kids in our late 20s and early 30s, in bell bottoms.”

Ordman was playing in the Grand Rapids Symphony when Bychkov got his first music director gig, at 27, in 1980. Bychkov, now based in Paris, was the maestro in Grand Rapids until he left to lead the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1985.

Ordman recalls congenial parties with Bychkov (they share a birthday) and some music-making she’ll never forget.

“Semyon brings out warm colors, a richness and thickness that engulfs the listener,” Ordman said. “He pushes things, takes a lot of risks, and that makes music, and art in general, very exciting.”

Bychkov later admitted he was like a “kid in a candy store” in Grand Rapids, his first gig as maestro, fresh from graduate studies in New York. One marathon concert featured Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” for the first half and Beethoven’s Ninth for the second half.

“Some people were angry,” Bychkov said.

“They had never been to such a long concert in their lives, and they probably never will again.”

“His concerts sometimes went on for three hours,” Ordman recalled. “We did some really great repertoire. I loved my time with him.”

Critical of the Soviet regime, Bychkov was pushed out of the Leningrad Conservatoire, where he began to study conducting in his teens, and emigrated to the United States in 1975. Wally Knack was president of the Grand Rapids Symphony board when he learned that Bychkov was available.

Bychkov, at 27, led the second of eight scheduled tryout concerts in Grand Rapids, but after hearing the maestro send Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to the stratosphere, the rest of the auditions were dropped, Knack said.

“He was so well received that we hired him out of order, much to the disappointment of the other candidates,” Knack said.

“No one was even close to him,” Ordman said. “We were like, ‘Oh my God, who is this guy?’ He is so musical.”

Even while Bychkov was cutting his teeth in Grand Rapids and Buffalo, gigs as a last-minute substitute in Berlin and New York thrust him onto the world stage. He went on to lead the Orchestre de Paris and the BBC Orchestra and moved on to grand opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

From the start, he drew superlatives. “Once in a very long time, the critic is privileged to attend a musical event tinged with greatness,” gushed New York Times critic Tim Page after Bychkov and the Buffalo Philharmonic played Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1986, a year after he left Grand Rapids.

Bychkov recalled his time in Michigan as a “very important chapter” in his life.

“I wanted to experience a ‘deep America,’ not a New York America,” Bychkov told The Guardian in 2012. In Grand Rapids, he beefed up the roster by some 10 musicians and called for extra rehearsals when he felt it was needed. It stretched the budget, but Bychkov was also game for fundraising, whether it meant skiing or competing in a hot dog eating contest.

Perhaps Bychkov’s most memorable moment in Grand Rapids was a gala outdoor concert on the Grand River with over 100,000 people in Ah-Neb-Awen park near the Gerald R. Ford Museum. The celebration included Bychkov’s emotional swearing-in as an American citizen.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Bychkov returned to Russia to conduct the St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Philharmonic.

Knack was with him. “We went back to the Conservatory, where he studied.” Knack recalled. “He took us into the room where he first conducted an orchestra.”

Knack is still a friend of the maestro and follows him to many of his far-flung concerts. This summer, Knack found the telegram President Ronald Reagan sent to Grand Rapids to congratulate Bychkov on becoming a citizen in 1985. He brought it with him to the Wagner shrine of Bayreuth, Germany, where Bychkov was conducting “Parisfal.”

Knack recalled that in the mid-1980s, the Grand Rapids Symphony auctioned off conducting lessons and a chance to conduct the orchestra for $2500, but nobody bit on the offer. A Chicago radio promoter said to Knack, ‘You’re the president. You ought to buy this.”

“He was very persuasive and talked me into it,” Knack said.

In six lessons, Bychkov took Knack from learning how to hold a baton (he still calls it “the stick”) and beat time with it all the way to taking a bow properly. Instead of the usual pops fare used in such promotions, Bychkov let Knack conduct a 12-minute Wagner overture as part of the season’s final subscription concert.

“I was a bundle of nerves,” he said. Needless to say, Knack and a pack of retired Grand Rapids musicians will caravan to East Lansing for Tuesday’s concert.

Active Grand Rapids musicians are stuck with a rehearsal Tuesday — except for Ordman, who got a pass. She really wants to go, and besides, she’s only playing second trombone for that concert.

Ordman admitted that Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto and “New World” Symphony are played to death by American orchestras, but hearing Czech masterworks played by a Czech orchestra is a different ballgame. (Ordman has also worked with Tuesday’s cello soloist, Alisa Weilerstein, and called her a “fabulous and rare musician.”) “It’s going to be amazing, because this music is in everybody’s blood,” Ordman said. “They’re all unique musicians who play on the edge, and have a lot of heart and soul, as opposed to being just technicians.”


Czech Philharmonic

Orchestra Semyon Bychkov, conductor Alisa Weilerstein, cello 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $29 and up (517) 432-2000 whartoncenter.com