San Francisco Symphony hosts Semyon Bychkov & the Labèque Sisters

Katia and Marielle Labèque – © Umberto Nicoletti – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

There’s a triple treat in store for San Francisco music lovers this week, as guest conductor Semyon Bychkov leads the San Francisco Symphony and the dynamic piano duo, Katia and Marielle Labèque, in a program of music by Taneyev, Bruch and Tchaikovsky.

A close friend of San Francisco Symphony, Semyon Bychkov made his debut with the Orchestra in 1989, the year in which he was named Principal Guest Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic, and Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris – a position he held for 10 years. He subsequently took up the role of Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne in 1997, and Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper in 1998.

Conductor Semyon Bychkov – © Sheila Rock – courtesy San Francisco Syphony

In another exciting appointment, at the start of the 2018-19 season, Maestro Bychkov becomes Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, a perfect pairing since, like the Orchestra, he is regarded as having “one foot firmly in the cultures of both the East and the West”.  Acclaimed for his appearances with the world’s finest orchestras and opera companies – he was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards in 2015 – Maestro Bychkov has a wide ranging repertoire, and an impressive range of recordings to his credit.

Katia and Marielle Labèque, incomparably stunning at their respective keyboards, were recognized as stars from an early age, when they were awarded one of the first gold records in classical music – a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Their career path has since followed a steep upward trajectory, with highly acclaimed performances around the globe, and appearances with some of the world’s major orchestras and most illustrious conductors, performing at renowned music festivals and impressive venues.

The repertoire of the Labèque sisters also includes appearances with Baroque ensembles, and they have worked with an impressive list of contemporary composers, including Philip Glass, who wrote a Concerto for Two Pianos for them, and says: “The Labèque sisters are tremendous. They’re great performers, and great interpreters. And they’re wonderful supporters of music – not only modern music, but just music. It was great to work with them.”

In this week’s concerts, Katia and Marielle Labèque play Max Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos – a work which has an intriguing history. It was inspired by a procession through the narrow alleys of Capri which the composer watched whilst on the island in 1904. He took note of the fanfare played by the tuba leading the procession, and also of the lamentation sung by a few hundred children who followed, with their burning candles and small wooden crosses.

Bruch originally incorporated these melodies into his Third Suite for Orchestra, which was premiered at a Promenade Concert in London in May 1909, conducted by Henry Wood, but the work as such was never published. The composer ultimately reworked it into his Concerto for Two Pianos, for two sisters, Rose and Ottilie Sutro – nieces of Adolph Sutro, a former mayor of San Francisco. Unknown to Bruch, however the Sutro sisters altered his concerto substantially, and over the years the original score was presumed to have been lost. Parts of it were discovered in 1970, after Ottilie’s death, and the remaining pages were eventually hunted down by pianist Nathan Twining, who painstakingly reconstructed the concerto which was finally performed, as intended, by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1973.

Semyon Bychkov adores the music of Tchaikovsky. “What is this music that we love so deeply if not our beloved friend?” he writes. “I’ve loved Tchaikovsky’s music ever since I can remember. Like all first loves this one never died.” So in 2013, Maestro Bychkov, together with the Czech Philharmonic, established an initiative to celebrate the music of Tchaikovsky. Under the title Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky Project, it’s a series of concerts, residencies and studio recordings by Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic, which have been taking place during 2016 and 2017. The project culminates in 2019 with residencies in Vienna and Paris, and the release by Decca of all six Tchaikovsky symphonies, the three piano concertos, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, Serenade for Strings and Francesca da Rimini. For more information on the Beloved Friend project, follow this link.

With Semyon Bychkov’s declared passion for the music of Tchaikovsky, it follows that one of the Russian master’s compositions should feature in this program, and for the final work, the Maestro has chosen Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 2, known as the Little Russian.

Tchaikovsky sketched the symphony in the summer of 1872, whilst staying at the home of his sister, Sasha, at Kamenka in the Ukraine – then known as Little Russia, hence the name given to the work. He frequently included snatches of Russian folk tunes in his compositions, but in this symphony he used more folk material than in any other work, all four of the melodies woven into the symphony being of Ukrainian origin. Written during a particularly happy period in Tchaikovsky’s life, the symphony has none of the melancholy and self-doubt which plagued the composer for so much of his life, but it is however characteristically beautiful.

Tchaikovsky also had a hand in the work which opens the concert – the Overture of Oresteia, Trilogy of Aeschylus by Sergei Taneyev. Not only was Tchaikovsky one of Taneyev’s principal composition teachers at the Moscow Conservatory, but he also conducted the world premiere of this work at a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow on November 9th, 1889. Taneyev was the soloist for the first Moscow performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1, and soloist for the Russian premieres of every one of Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra, and they remained close friends until Tchaikovsky’s death.

Although Taneyev composed an opera called The Oresteia – his only work for the stage – this overture is not part of that score. It’s a standalone concert piece based on the the same theme as the opera, which draws on episodes from the ancient Greek Oresteia, by Aeschylus.

Semyon Bychkov leads the San Francisco Symphony, with guest artists Katia and Marielle Labèque, in works by Taneyev, Bruch and Tchaikovsky, at Davies Symphony Hall, from May 31st to June 2nd. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.


Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes:

Max Bruch – Concerto for Two Pianos  (James M Keller)

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No 2  (Michael Steinberg)

Taneyev – Oresteia Overture  (James M Keller)

Tchaikovsky – a biography by Anthony Holden


Artists’ websites:

Semyon Bychkov

Semyon Bychkov

Katia and Marielle Labèque


ArtsPreview home page

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