Semyon Bychkov leans forward, thoughtfully stirring his Bloody Mary. When he speaks his voice cuts through the background noise of a Manhattan restaurant on a busy Friday night. “For Russians, Tchaikovsky is the god that Verdi is for the Italians,” he declares.

“Why is it that an Italian will burst into tears at the name of Verdi? And why will a Russian’s eyes get moist the moment they hear a Tchaikovsky tune?...

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