A case where dollars may be calling the classical tune

Classical record companies are in the business of making money, and they make money by finding and recording stars. If they can't find a star, they have to invent one, and this is just what Philips Records seems to be trying to do with Russian 'emigr'e conductor Semyon Bychkov. There was a time when records could be chronicles of important artistic events, as well as moneymakers. Now the cost of recording an orchestra is such that the search for profit has begun to outweigh the desire for artistic legacy. Today, it is the conductor's face on the album cover that sells. Thus, a company must either sign on the great maestros of the day, or find the younger talent that could become the legend of tomorrow. Failing that, it must create an image around someone who has marketing potential.

Philips, for example, found Bernard Haitink when he was only in his 20s and was not a particularly flashy musician. He still isn't flashy, but he is thoughtful, profound, and caring. He has developed into an important figure on our live and recorded music scene today.

This brings us to Mr. Bychkov, who was just settling into his tenure as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, where he might have had a chance to grow into a meaningful musician had he been given half a chance. Instead, it seems to me that he was grabbed by the scruff of his neck and thrust before the Philips Records microphones and into the public-relations mills.

Overnight and with very little reputation preceding him, he has become, in the words of his program biography, ``singled out as one of the most exciting young conductors today'' (without saying by whom). He has even been mentioned officially by Philips personnel as a potential Wilhelm Furtw"angler or Willem Mengelberg, two of the greatest conductors of the century.

And what about his actual talents at this point? On the basis of two heavily promoted Berlin Philharmonic recordings - of two frantically overrecorded works - Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony (digital CD, 420-069-2) and Tchaikovsky's complete ``Nutcracker'' ballet (two digital CDs, 420-237-2) - and a concert tour with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, it is clear that he is not ready for all the attention. And instead of letting him grow naturally, his managers and his record company are trying to thrust greatness upon him.

Do they not realize that the pressures of trying to live up to an unearned superstardom will only force him to rely on bad habits rather than find a way to begin making real music?

The first thing one noticed about Bychkov's podium manner with the London orchestra was the way he thrashed the air with his baton arm. It barely communicated beat, let alone phrasing and intent. One had to marvel that the London Philharmonic's brass was able to determine where to find, in all of that baton waving and jabbing, the cue to begin Verdi's ``La Forza del Destino'' overture. And throughout the piece, tempos changed without warning and without meaning, and any sense of Verdian structure was sabotaged in an apparent attempt to prove that he was an ``exciting'' podium presence.

He was then joined by violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, another musician who has been promoted and reviewed more on the basis of stage mannerisms than on actual musicmaking. They offered a pedestrian account of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.

The major works of Bychkov's two pro-grams were Berlioz's ``Symphonie fantastique'' and Mahler's First Symphony. Again, there was little sense of organization to the performances. In the Berlioz, Bychkov aimed for obvious and noisy climaxes and glossed over the haunting, poignant, and evocative aspects of the score.

The Mahler was given an ordinary reading - hardly what one expects from a conductor supposedly worthy of leading the finest ensembles in the world.

Bychkov is at a terrible disadvantage, conducting under severe pressures that he is clearly not ready to cope with. The recordings bear this out. The Berlin Philharmonic is the greatest ensemble in the world today; it does not play badly. And the recordings are quite extraordinary examples of Philips engineering. It's just that neither performance has much meaning, profile, or insight.

Whatever emerges of the positive is due exclusively to engineers and orchestra.

Bychkov may or may not survive the current pressures on him. From Buffalo he takes over the Orchestre de Paris next season. This is perhaps the most difficult major ensemble to work with in terms of personalities and that thorny brand of French musical politics that has defeated the likes of Herbert von Karajan in the past.

The issue here is the power of the record companies. Today, it is not possible for a conductor to get an important orchestral post without a major recording contract. Therefore, the companies have tremendous power over the individual artists.

Bychkov cannot be blamed for grabbing at the bait of a tailor-made career. But if he does not live up to expectations, who at Philips is going to take the blame?

If this sort of question were ever a consideration among the career makers and breakers, then the business of making a career might just become more humane, more charitable, and less obsessively tied to the bottom line of the yearly financial statement.

Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.

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