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Semyon Story or Comet Quip: Can You Guess?

GRSMA's seasoned musicians love to regale the tales of past GRS Music Directors. As a feature, we have collected stories about two of them, Semyon Bychkov and Catherine Comet, to see if you can match the story with the conductor.


Semyon Bychkov was GRS Music Director from 1980 to 1985. It was in Grand Rapids where he became a US citizen, and today he leads the renowned Czech Philharmonic. 


Catherine Comet was GRS Music Director from 1986 to 1997, one of the first women to hold such a position with an American orchestra.

So, is this a Semyon Story or a Comet Quip? (Answers are given at the end of the article.)


Question 1, submitted by violinist Diane McElfish Helle:

Running late for rehearsal, this conductor was pulled over by the state police for speeding. The officer looked at the driver's license and said, "I just have one question. Why do you drive so fast when your tempos are so darn slow?" Turns out that the officer had season tickets to the GRS.


Question 2, submitted by horn player Richard Britsch:

Upon hearing the news that the GRS would have a four-week summer season, this conductor stated pleasure in not having a four-month gap between the spring and fall to work with their musicians. To open the inaugural season, this music director conducted Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony on a very hot summer evening in Cannonsburg. 95 degrees, to be exact.


Question 3, submitted by oboist Alexander Miller:

In the early 1980s this conductor led a performance of Respighi’s Pines of Rome at Interlochen. At the end there was endless, enthusiastic applause. This conductor was presented with a floral bouquet, who joyously tore the bouquet apart and began throwing individual flowers into the orchestra for the musicians to catch until nothing was left.


Question 4, submitted by violinist Caroline Freihofer:

We were rehearsing Mahler's Sixth Symphony on April Fool's Day. As a joke for this conductor, a secret message circulated within the orchestra to sing your part instead of play. This conductor looked like they were going to blow a gasket at the bass section for their tone until the realization of what was going on and then broke out laughing.


Question 5, submitted by violinist Diane McElfish Helle:

This conductor would invite a GRS musician to stand in for the week’s guest soloist for a complete run-through of the concerto the day before the soloist arrived. It was an extraordinary opportunity which was offered to musicians throughout the orchestra and added up to a lot of concertos spread around to many musicians. 


Question 6, submitted by violinist Christine Golden:

The GRS was rehearsing a piece by Mahler when I was late in my twin pregnancy, which by then was very apparent. I remember this conductor coming over to me and saying, "Aren't you worried that the babies will be depressed by this Mahler music?". Not long afterward, I gave birth to two wonderful baby boys, and I don't know if the Mahler had depressed them, but they sure did cry a lot! 


Question 7, submitted by oboe/English Horn player Kathy Gomez

I recall that this conductor taught me to play soccer! They were great but me .. not so good. Afterwards my shins were so sore and I could hardly walk. I have a new appreciation for soccer players thanks to this conductor.


Question 8, submitted by violinist Diane McElfish Helle:

While I was presenting a “concert teaser” at a GRS Women’s Committee meeting to get people primed for an upcoming concert, this Music Director suddenly appeared in the back of the room. I was a bit nervous since my talk was entitled Is a Conductor Really Necessary?. Afterwards this conductor came up to say that these talks should be available to our whole symphony audience, not just a select few, and proceeded to put forth the idea for the next GRS season. These pre-concert talks before every Classical performance became the Inside the Music series which is still going strong some 33 years later as Upbeat. Now nearly every orchestra has such a series, but this conductor was well ahead of the curve when starting UpBeat here in Grand Rapids. 


We close with a beautiful story about Catherine Comet by violinist Christina Fong that just had to be shared in its entirety.

"It is difficult for me to talk about Catherine because everything was about music. I can’t recall a single non-professional or non-musical interchange with her. Everything personal we had we shared only through music-making. During my second season with the GRS, I played a recital that included a sonata called Three Poems for violin and piano by Donald Erb. Catherine had worked extensively with Donald Erb. She conducted and premiered many of his works. She agreed to come and listen to a rehearsal for my recital. I reminded her about the rehearsal the day before it. She had forgotten to put it in her books. I could tell that she had other plans for the day, but Catherine had a deep sense of commitment to music and musicians. On that cold winter day, she came out to the rehearsal. As she removed her coat, Catherine did not look too pleased to be there. My pianist, who was fluent in French, tried to break the ice by conversing with her in French. He was only mildly successful. I almost felt bad for asking her to come. When the music began, everything changed. She was absorbed, gave incredibly helpful and insightful comments. She worked with us for about an hour until her next meeting. I thanked her profusely for her time. She responded only with, 'You are welcome,' and she took off. The recital was the following week, and to my surprise, Catherine came. I had no idea she was there until after the concert. She congratulated us after the concert, and her face was beaming. This interchange was the extent of how personal we ever got. A few years later, Catherine and the GRS recorded three concertos by Donald Erb with Richard Stoltzman, Miriam Fried, and Ava Ordman. One of my hobbies is drawing and painting portraits. After Catherine’s last concert with the GRS, I gave her a portrait entitled The Three Faces of Donald Erb. There is a movement in the Three Poems called Together Forever. This is how I feel about Catherine Comet. Her musical imprint is forever."


ANSWERS to Semyon Story or Comet Quip:

Question 1: Semyon Bychkov

Question 2: Catherine Comet

Question 3: Catherine Comet

Question 4: Semyon Bychkov

Question 5: Semyon Bychkov

Question 6: Catherine Comet

Question 7: Semyon Bychkov

Question 8: Catherine Comet

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