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Maestro conducts Mahler with students

Semyon Bychkov

On Friday I went to Dukes Hall at the Royal Academy of Music — surely one of the prettiest concert halls in London with its amber and cream decor, chandeliers and oil paintings, not to mention the splendid acoustic.

My purpose was to watch the internationally celebrated Semyon Bychkov rehearse the Academy Concert Orchestra and the work was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I walked into the hall to the rich sounds of the fourth movement, the adagietto which has become so well known and popular since Visconti’s film Death in Venice and that unforgettable Dirk Bogarde moment.

But of course there are five movements in this marathon of a symphony which takes nearly an hour to play.

Bychkov — calm, assertive, gentle and witty — was coaxing a magnificent sound from this huge Mahler-sized assembly of tomorrow’s professionals. These young people will soon go on to play in orchestras and pit bands for opera, musical theatre and ballet all over the world. No doubt there are some fine future soloists here too. And they were watched not just by me at the rehearsal but by several students, some with scores, keen to learn from Bychkov.

“It’s part of the job to put something back and you learn so much from doing it,” he told me afterwards when I asked him about his commitment to working with students. “The Royal Academy of Music is excellent at promoting tolerance, plurality and opening horizons for students, rather than teaching that there’s any one fixed way of doing anything. There isn’t.”

Bychkov, currently in London to conduct seven performances of La Boheme at Royal Opera House and a London Symphony Orchestra concert at The Barbican last month, works with top orchestras all over the world and with a number of training orchestras in various countries.

He is the current occupant of the Academy’s Klemperer Chair of Conducting, one of a long line of distinguished conductors who have worked there including Henry Wood, Thomas Beecham, Malcolm Sargent, John Barbirolli, Charles Mackerras and Colin Davis.

The Royal Academy, which now also runs an acclaimed post graduate Music Theatre course, was founded in 1822. Carl Maria Von Weber conducted its orchestra in 1826 and Richard Strauss in 1926. In more recent times it trained, among many others, Simon Rattle, Harrison Birtwistle, Elton John and Annie Lennox. Today students come to it from more than fifty countries.

Back in Dukes Hall the orchestra had a 45 minute break to change before a public, lunchtime performance of the symphony. The hall was full to bursting and the audience was clearly thrilled by what they heard. A pretty uplifting experience for all concerned, I think.

Photo: Hana Zushi, Royal Academy of Music

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