fri 29/08/2014

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Ilan Volkov | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Ilan Volkov

The conductor on his career, contemporary music and coughing during concerts

Next year will see not only a new Tectonics programme in Reykjavik, but also one in Glasgow…

Yes, we have commissions in place, and the BBC are very much behind the project. The 2013 festival in Glasgow will have a big concentration on British experimentalism, involving Frank Denyer and other composers who are represented in small, niche circles but usually are not played or commissioned by symphony orchestras. I want to expand the horizons of what an orchestra does and to make people aware of the extremes of that particular scene. For example, very few people know about John Cage’s orchestral works. Between 1985 and 1991 he wrote around 70 orchestral pieces, but audiences just don’t hear this music, and therefore they don’t know its value, or understand its weaknesses or strengths.

Cage is a recurring theme in your programming. Where did this interest come from?

I was never taught about Cage at the Academy, they didn’t show me the scores or teach me how to perform them. It’s only in the last few years that I have learned. It’s a whole new field of music for me, and as far as I’m concerned it’s crucial to expanding the repertoire. Cage’s orchestral pieces could be programmed and make sense played alongside Bruckner – it’s beautiful and incredibly interesting music to perform – but they’re just not being played.

As part of this year’s Tectonics you directed the ISO in a full orchestral improvisation with electric guitarist Oren Ambarchi. What did you hope would emerge from this experiment?

Usually classical musicians look down on improvisation – it’s not structured enough, detailed enough, organised enough. It’s a bit like the relationship between written and oral traditions of literature. But these improvisational works have things which written-out compositions do not. It’s a different way of approaching playing. So when we did the full orchestral improvisation – something I’ve never done before – it is taking this concept to the extreme; it’s real-time composition.

Extremes are exciting, but don’t you worry that you risk alienating audiences?

It’s not my job is to help listeners, it’s to show them what’s out there. But it’s a lot to do with choosing the right pieces, and the circumstances in which you perform the music – how you frame it, light it, price it. This year’s programme for the ISO will incorporate lots of classic symphonic works, but I am always searching for new repertoire that neither the audience nor the orchestra know – repertoire I hope will become contemporary classics.

It’s up to each individual to decide at what point sound becomes music, or music becomes politics

Between ENO’s Klinghoffer and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s residency at the Proms this year, we’re seeing a lot of political issues emerging in London’s classical music scene. What’s your view on the role of politics in music-making?

I am very unhappy with a lot of things in the world. I am unhappy with the situation in Israel – that’s particularly close to my heart – but for me every person needs to decide for himself whether he wants to engage with these issues while he is making music or during his free time though activism. I am more and more aware of the dangers of politics, of being convinced that you are right and not respecting those who disagree with you.

So should politics stop at the concert hall door?

No. Sound is everywhere, and it’s up to each individual to decide at what point sound becomes music, or music becomes politics. If I find a political piece that I think is musically strong and makes a statement then I will perform it, but we’ve heard what politically engaged music can lead to – it can lead to works like Cardew produced towards the end of life, which is obviously not the way to go. Whenever you use music for non-musical ends there is a danger, and there is a general fear in the arts of dealing with the world that we are living in. There are two responses: we either create a world that doesn’t exist or face our own world head on. I like musicians who take risks, but as a performer and curator myself I don’t want to try too consciously to shape the statement that is emerging from the music.

What about more practical models for musical politics like West-Eastern Divan Orchestra?

Teaching is great, but it should be about teaching the people that need teaching, the people who don’t have money, who don’t have access to music. So, although it’s a great project in musical terms, I’m less interested in it than in the work of my friends who are working in Israel and going every day to the West Bank to teach music. They need funding. Music has a healing power which people are gradually discovering, and this is really important not as a political tool for a country to become famous, but as a real tool that can help people. You have to take individual ego out and do something that is valuable. Lots of orchestras take on education projects because of the funding that comes with them, but you need to do it because you want to do it and because you know why you want to do it.

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