NEW YORK (AFP).- As a boy in Saint Petersburg, Semyon Bychkov would scrounge to buy second-hand Tchaikovsky scores with pocket change from lunch money given by his mother.
Living in a communal apartment with other families in the city then called Leningrad, he recalls that by age 12, he would spend nights in the kitchen -- the only room with both lights and privacy -- waving an imaginary baton as if guiding orchestras to Russia's most treasured composer.
Bychkov went on to become a renowned conductor, fleeing the Soviet Union for the West after reaching adulthood to escape anti-Semitism and official suspicion of his political views.
Now 64, the maestro has put together a Tchaikovsky festival at the New York Philharmonic, an in-depth exploration through performances from Tuesday until February 11.
Scholars have persistently debated whether Tchaikovsky was uniquely Russian or an extension of the Western classical tradition.
Although he sees both sides, Bychkov stresses Tchaikovsky's connection to national identity, saying that even Russians with little education revere the composer.
"Say Tchaikovsky and their eyes begin to swell," Bychkov, who speaks with clear delight about the 19th-century composer, told AFP.
The former music director of the Orchestre de Paris who holds conducting posts in London at both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Academy of Music, Bychkov says his passion for Tchaikovsky never faded despite his difficult past with his homeland.
Not so with Shostakovich, arguably Russia's greatest 20th-century composer, who struggled under the stifling control of the Soviet authorities.
"There was a period of about five years that I could not hear the sounds of his music, let alone perform it, because it brought me back to what I left," Bychkov says.
Tchaikovsky, however, "is in a way something that has always been in my life and always will."
New look at final work
Although Bychkov's relationship with Tchaikovsky never ebbed, it has evolved.
"The music remains the same," he says. "We change the way we perceive it, or the way we interpret it."
He points to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, or "Pathetique," which the composer premiered in 1893 days before his death.
Tchaikovsky officially died from cholera, but many have long speculated that he killed himself after the discovery of his homosexuality.
Bychkov -- who will close the Tchaikovsky festival with "Pathetique," which he recently recorded for Decca Classics with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra -- also believed the suicide hypothesis.
But he began questioning the theory in recent years after studying the original score, deciding that Tchaikovsky wanted the last movement to be more dynamic and have a faster tempo than how orchestras have historically performed it.
"Its coda, which offered a proof of resignation, in fact for me is not a resignation at all but a protest against dying," Bychkov says. However, "whether he committed suicide or not, I don't think we will ever know."
Balance between famous and obscure
Bychkov has included some of Tchaikovsky's comparatively obscure works in the festival, including Piano Concerto No. 2, to be played by Yefim Bronfman, and the "Manfred" Symphony based on Lord Byron's poem.
Orchestras have often shied away from the complex "Manfred" Symphony, which evokes the Alps over nearly one hour. The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini condensed it.
Bychkov says directors should be confident in each piece they choose because it "simply cripples the creation" if they try to alter it.
"It is our challenge to bring it to life in a way that will reveal that it is a genuine masterpiece."
Bychkov will also conduct Symphony No. 5, one of Tchaikovsky's most recognizable works besides his ballet suites for "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake."
For Bychkov, even the most famous works can deliver new meaning.
"If performances have real commitment, real conviction and a real quality, music that is very familiar will be revealed in a new light -- first to ourselves, and then to an audience."
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