Written by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff
I meet Ilan Volkov on 11 August 2006 in a fusty Victorian sitting room at the rear of his Kensington hotel. With burnished wood-panelling and plush antique chaises, it is a place that speaks of Elgar and brandy, of English gentlemen trading witticisms and cigar smoke. It provides a terrific contrast to the energetic young Israeli who walks in to greet me: with thick eyebrows, nerdish glasses and neatly-trimmed beard, the 29-year-old still has more than a whiff of student chic about him. Certainly, no-one meeting Volkov for the first time would guess him to be the chief conductor of a major British orchestra.
But Volkov is accustomed to defying expectations. Still under 30, he has built up an immensely impressive CV, attaining the top position at the Glasgow-based BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the unreasonably prodigious age of 26. Since his appointment he has taken the orchestra from strength to strength, building on the legacy of his predecessor Osmo Vänskä and garnering fans and critical praise for his own work in the process.
“Being in Glasgow has been fantastic for me,” he says over a beer the day after conducting a stylish account of Stravinsky’s The Firebird at the BBC Proms. “I feel very privileged to work with this amazing orchestra – it’s very flexible and always changing for the better it seems. It’s just great luck to have my first position in a place where I really feel comfortable and happy.”
Luck, however, has had little to do with Ilan Volkov’s meteoric rise. By 23 he had already spent two years as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and it was there that he caught the ear of Japanese maestro Seiji Ozawa, who invited Volkov to be his assistant at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ozawa’s tutelage clearly paid off and something of that conductor’s technical brilliance can be detected in Volkov’s technique today: rhythmic incisiveness, textural lucidity and an impressive command of that elusive beast, the ‘long line’.
This year marked Volkov’s fourth visit to the Proms, where he has developed a reputation as a catholic programmer and an advocate of difficult repertoire, such as Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. “We always do two concerts, one next to another,” he says, “and I always try to mix the programmes up.” This year, as well as Firebird and Schumann’s Third Symphony, Volkov and company gave two premieres: the London one of Jonathan Harvey’s …towards a pure land – originally commissioned for Volkov and the BBCSSO – and the world premiere of James Dillon’s new piano concerto, Andromeda.
Volkov is passionate about new music. “I have a few friends that come to the Proms each year and they always tell me how they enjoyed this or that piece,” he says, “and it’s always one of the new works. They seem to identify with it more, they understand it more, and I think a lot of young audiences feel like that way. But you have to believe that there’s enough of an audience like that and really develop it side-by-side with the existing audience that wants to hear the old favourites.”
He has been a champion of British contemporary music especially, both at the Proms and at his home base in Glasgow. Is this merely contractual obligation, or is he genuinely a fan? “Well obviously one has a priority here, especially for the BBC, to promote it. But no, I’m interested in quite a lot of things. I don’t talk about the nationalistic side of composers in that sense. It’s my experience, because I studied here and a lot of my work started in this country, that I’ve encountered a lot of British composers – and because of these encounters I perform their works. Having a personal relationship with a composer is definitely an important thing.”
I ask Volkov why he likes performing at the Proms so much. “It’s the atmosphere, one of real listening; you feel that people have come to really hear the concert and are not just there to be seen. There is no social system going on: anyone can go in, from a tourist who’s never been to the Royal Albert Hall to someone who goes every day and hears all the concerts.” Does he perceive there is a problem with elitism in classical music? “Not so much in Glasgow, actually. But in major European cities? Yes – there is an element to this art form which is nothing to do with art.”
Not only is Volkov determined to open classical music up to a wider audience, he is keen to expose the traditional classical audience to other, less traditional fare. In Tel Aviv last July, he curated the three-day “Hafarot Seder” festival (the name means ‘disturbances’), which incorporated everything from Xenakis to jazz, free improvisation and performance art. “It started with me thinking that I would like to have some experiences that have nothing to do with conducting,” he says. “Somewhere where I could think about the ideas I had about new music in a different way and influence things in a different way. So I started organising this festival that used different varieties of new music.”
The festival was successful “on a really small scale”, he says, and it has since spawned a new performance space in Tel Aviv called Levontin 7. Under Volkov’s co-direction, it is another attempt to encourage cross-pollination amongst different strands of contemporary music. “It has 200 standing places and 130 seats – for all kinds of music really.” One Israeli musician describes the programme as “baroque string trios, Iraqi-Jewish folk, Balkan beat box extravaganzas, minimalist noise bands, free jazz, doom metal and other popular forms.” Volkov calls it “a place where you can have your beer and still hear classical music.”
Though Volkov rules out a similar venture in the UK, the programmes he performs here have equally evinced his pluralist tendencies. For his debut with the London Sinfonietta last year, he caused something of a stir by including a funky progressive-rock number by British composer Luke Stoneham, while in May, he collaborated with improvisers Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury in an “open orchestration” work by James Tenney. (Sad to report that Tenney died on 24 August.) “For me, it’s an important part of what I do and it’s something I feel strongly about,” he says, speaking of contemporary music in general. “But it’s still difficult to do every concert with something new – it’s just difficult to programme, to ensure that you have enough time to rehearse. In Glasgow, it’s a fantastic situation because I’m really free to do these things.
“Working with a radio orchestra gives you this freedom,” he explains, “because the commercial side of ticket sales is less important. You have a real responsibility to what the orchestra stands for and there needs to be a strong identity that’s different from a normal subscription orchestra. On the other hand, we are still building the audience in Glasgow, hoping to establish a regular one. When symphony orchestras have 2,500 seats to sell, they unfortunately have to be very careful what they do.”
When it comes to new music, Volkov admits there is a need to win over the ‘suits’ as much as the audience. “If [the management] doesn’t really believe in doing it, then it’s very hard to sell to an audience. You can’t just do it because you ‘have’ to do it – that comes across very clearly. If you ‘have’ to do it because you’re going to get more money if you do new music, or you only do short pieces so it’s not too hard for your audience, these things are compromises in the long term and they do not necessarily help an audience’s understanding and enjoyment.”
It is not hard to see why Volkov has impressed BBC bosses sufficiently to extend his contract until 2009 – his passion for all things edgy and contemporary is offset by preternatural qualities for being level-headed and sound business sense. When he asks me about Classical Source, the first thing he wants to know is where it gets its funding – an inescapable question in today’s world of market-driven arts quotas, where even the most successful orchestra must rely on a steady stream of private donations to stay afloat. Programming new music can therefore seem a dangerous strategy. “Economically, it’s not a very viable thing,” Volkov admits. “Artistically, it’s extremely important, but economically it’s always difficult to make things work. The solution for most people is just not to do any new music.”
Eventually, he says, he would like to form his own ensemble. “Something that will be more ‘mine’. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something huge – it can be very small and mobile – but something where I can really concentrate, a few times a year, on doing things that are not usual for a symphony orchestra. Like going and playing in site-specific work-places and in venues that are not really for classical music. Reaching out to a different kind of audience.”
“But,” he says with a reassuring smile, “I’ll always be doing Mahler Seven – definitely.”