From Iceland — Lighting A Fire Under The Orchestra

Lighting A Fire Under The Orchestra

Published February 22, 2012

Lighting A Fire Under The Orchestra

After an exhilarating performance of Giacinto Scelsi’s ‘Hymnos,’ the conductor turns to the audience and tells us that because we will probably never hear the piece performed again, we should pick a new spot in the hall and they will do it one more time. He turns back around again, and the audience shuffles to their new seats to experience an acoustically variant take two.
I make my way up to the second floor balcony of Harpa’s Eldborg Hall and find a seat behind the orchestra with a rare view of the conductor in action. Ilan Volkov is Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s new conductor and music director. The thirty-four year old from Israel began working as a conductor at the early age of nineteen and became the youngest conductor of a BBC symphony orchestra at twenty-seven.
From my new seat, I feel the organ vibrating and I hear fidgeting that the composer probably did not intend for me to hear, but the experience is altogether enlightening. Ilan thrusts his baton violently in one direction, while he glances in another, and motions in yet another. As the piece becomes more intense, he even opens his mouth as if to let out a big roar over the musicians.
In many ways it is readily apparent that Ilan is not your typical orchestra conductor. But sensing that he has a whole lot more than a game of musical chairs up his sleeve, we meet up with him to chat about his philosophies, his ideas for the orchestra, and his plans to collaborate with local composers, musicians and artists, not to mention, the new modern music festival he is launching this March on John Cage’s centennial anniversary.
It’s a short walk from The Grapevine offices to Harpa, where I am meeting Ilan Volkov this afternoon. I had been told that his schedule would be tight as he is only in the country for a week and, as we sit down, I notice that he hasn’t had time to eat the sandwich on the coffee table in front of him. Ilan begins his story by telling me that his father was a musician. He recounts his early exposure to music, beginning with the violin and piano at an early age. His formal education in conducting began when he was thirteen, and by seventeen, he says conducting had become his passion. At nineteen, fresh out of school in London, Ilan took on his first conducting job in Newcastle.
“But conducting is not really something you can go to school and learn,” he says, “you have to learn a lot of it on your own. You learn repertoire, history of music, and theory—it’s a big field of stuff—at school, but you also have to learn how to work with a group and this comes with experience. It takes a while to realise what you have to do, psychologically and physically. You need to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and then how to criticise yourself, to make sure you know if you do something wrong.”
Yet, what exactly does a conductor’s job entail? This is mystifying to most of us who see little more than the conductor’s back. Surely it’s more than waving a baton at a group of musicians.
“It’s a variety of things,” he says. “It’s an organisational role of directing a big bunch of people who sit quite far from one another and lack an overall picture of what’s going on.” This, he says, can be divided into the practical element of making sure that the orchestra starts and finishes together, and the spiritual element of guiding and motivating a big group, which is accomplished through talking, and a lot of gestures.
He compares the role of a conductor to that of a choreographer or a director, noting similarities in their jobs. “But the conductor differs in that conducting is a physical thing done in real time,” he says. “The conductor does a lot of things that are unspoken, that even the orchestra doesn’t really realise because there is a lot happening at the same time—the brain is working full time.”
Nonetheless, he doesn’t consider the conductor to be like the striker of a football team. “Part of the problem is that perceptually there appears to be a hierarchy, the conductor is big in the picture, but still part of the group and most of the responsibility lies with the musicians,” he says. “Even if you do a good job conducting, if the musicians don’t play well, it won’t happen. There is a lot of psychology involved. You have to be humble in what you’re doing, even if you’re convinced that you are right. You have to understand the difficulties that others are having because without their will to do it, nothing will work. You’re dealing with a lot of individuals, and each of them can have a bad day.”
I ask him if it isn’t difficult to come in and conduct a new orchestra composed of a large group of people that he doesn’t know very well. “When you go to a new group you have to convince them that you know what you are talking about,” he says. “It takes time.”
Despite being only twenty-seven when he was appointed chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony—the youngest chief conductor appointed to a BBC Orchestra—Ilan was able to convince the orchestra that he knew what he was talking about and he says they didn’t mind his young age. He tells me that he looks forward to continuing to work with them as their Principle Guest Conductor. “This is quite rare after you finish your contract,” he says. Usually a conductor packs their bags and says thanks very much, see you in ten years. For me it’s nice to keep a relationship with them. There is a lot about trust and respect. It’s a nice feeling.”
He has yet to reach this stage with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, but he is optimistic. In fact he accepted the position at Iceland Symphony Orchestra because he was keen on being somewhere he could develop his ideas more freely.
“There is no big tradition here hanging over me and telling me I can’t do something,” he says. “When you are in the first few seasons in a new hall, there is a lot of freedom as nothing is set in stone. For me that was part of the appeal and the fact that the culture here is open and interested in new things. People don’t think, ‘oh that’s a modern piece, I’m not interested in it.’”
I ask him if Icelanders are more freethinking than others and he continues to elaborate on his impressions of the country. “There is a willingness to do things, which I find refreshing,” he says. “When I worked at the BBC Scottish, I initially faced a lot of ‘No, we can’t do that.’ There’s a lot of that in the orchestra world, there’s a lot of wanting to work 9-5. They know what’s good; they don’t need to be told, to learn something new.”
So far, Ilan says that the Iceland Symphony Orchestra has been receptive to the challenges he throws at them. For instance, he has had them rehearse a complicated piece by composer Benedikt Mason, in which each musician has four music stands and they have to turn in circles on an office chair to play different parts. “It was written for an ensemble rather than an orchestra, and it requires a lot of movement,” he says. “Even though people didn’t know what to expect, and didn’t understand a lot of it because it’s very tricky, there was a willingness. The attitude that I have felt is great; people are curious and they don’t have a negative impulse. This means that I can ask them to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
Yet, everything is very new and Ilan says they are still learning about each other, noting that there are a lot of other changes to get used to given the orchestra’s new home in Harpa, Iceland’s new concert hall and conference hall, which opened last year.  
Before last year when Harpa opened, both the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Icelandic Opera resided in Háskólabíó, which is also a movie theatre. I recall going to see an opera and being distracted by the smell of popcorn that came seeping through the vents in the middle of the performance. Not to mention, the listening experience has been greatly enhanced.
“Yes, I think the audience is amazed to be in a place where acoustically you really hear things. This a big change, and it makes the orchestra play much better,” he says. “It’s also great that the audience has come. At first the orchestra didn’t know how many concerts to put on; it was really only at the end of last year that we could tell that it would be really full.” Now he says the goal is to keep the audience coming. “We need to keep the audience interested in what we are doing, not only the nice location.”
Ilan points out that the orchestra is also now very much at the forefront of the city, a more prominent part of the cultural life. “There is now an opportunity to attract a larger audience and to organise more concerts and education programmes,” he says. “There is potential to go on a journey of discovery in a place like this where there is little tradition, an open audience, and a fantastic music hall.”
I mention that I get the sense that he is being marketed like a rock star conductor, and ask whether classical music needs a facelift, so to speak, to attract a wider audience. While he doesn’t necessarily see it that way, he definitely has plans to breathe life into the orchestra.
“There is a tendency for people to think it is necessary to have famous international guests, but often a real connection with the audience is established closer to home,” he says. “In the first year that I’m here, I want very much to collaborate with the young talent that grows here. I also want to develop relationships with artists, non-musicians that would collaborate on a more regular basis. I want to expand the view of what the concert is, which does not have to be just one thing.”
Despite the fact that Ilan says people have increasingly short attention spans in an age of instant gratification, he is optimistic that he can reach a wider audience. “I think there are ways of getting around this by offering a diverse repertoire of material and working with different kinds of artists and music,” he says. “That’s why in the Tectonics festival we are doing so many collaborations with people who would otherwise never work with an orchestra. It creates a completely new dynamic where things are unexpected. That’s an important part of what music is and what orchestra life is—that’s the way it should be anyways.”
Ilan says he is pleased that his ideas have been received so well. “I can keep a very traditional orchestra with repertoire and conductors on one hand, while developing a whole new strand of concerts on the other, which will gradually mean a different kind of audience too. Variety is important to me; I hate when I open orchestra brochures and they are almost always the same whether you are in France, England, or America.”
The brochure for Tectonics—the new modern music festival that he is launching in March—will certainly not be your standard orchestra fare. It will feature a wealth of John Cage and collaborative pieces with local musicians from a variety of scenes, including electronic, improvisation, and noise.  
It seemed like a good idea to ask Ilan to explain modernism, which is at the forefront of the new festival. “Oh Jesus, I would say, beginning in the twentieth century, people—like Duchamp, like Cage, like Dada artists—started to look at things and ask totally different questions. And this resulted in a whole bunch of different strands within new music and modern art,” he says. “Take for example an old piece by Cage that takes a piano and decides that it is going to be something else. It is still played as a piano, but he completely turns upside down what the player is doing, what the composer doing, and what the listener expects when they look at the instrument.”
And the conversation turns to John Cage, a real pioneer in modernism. “I think what’s really fascinating about him is that he decided very early on to constraints on his own power to get more out of his music. He was a composer trying to take himself out of the composition process, with less and less control of the outcomes, but the funny thing is that it always sounds like Cage, even if there is almost nothing there, you still know it’s Cage,” he says. 
“It’s kind of a whole way of thinking, not only about music, but also about the world. It’s very philosophical. From the beginning, he has been understood more by artists than musicians, and he has been more respected in the art world than the music world. Fewer musicians know his music than artists, who learn about it in art classes. In that sense, he was really a new figure in the world of music and he is still incredibly influential. In many ways a lot of his work is a kind of critique of the powerful structures and he was able to take the rug away from underneath by showing things from a different perspective. It’s difficult to explain, but for me, that’s most interesting.”
One of John Cage’s concepts centred on relinquishing control and in a number of his pieces he has removed the conductor from the equation completely. As a conductor, I ask Ilan how he feels about this. “Well I’ve done a lot of his pieces,” he says. “In one of them, ‘Concert for piano,’ the conductor part was a clock. I just stood there and did the clock with my hands, sometimes moving the second hands at the right time, but sometimes speeding up or slowing down. It’s a game, like everything he does. He’s taking rules about music and turning them upside down. He’s of course not interested in having a conductor show off their great expression. He is more interested in the sound being what it is.”
I take this opportunity to ask the silly question I had been harbouring. So you don’t have to wave a baton? Can it be anything? Like a flashlight? I question. “Oh yeah.” he laughs. “I’ve done it once in Denmark. It was very funny. But it was kind of a disaster. They gave me a flashlight and it stopped working in the show and it became completely dark and nobody could see anything. Yeah people do all sorts of weird stuff now.”
I ask him if there any boundaries, and whether there is any point that experimentation goes too far and becomes ridiculous, and he points out that people used to think Stravinsky was too ridiculous. “Once upon a time, ‘The Rite of Spring’ was impossible. All the orchestras in the world thought this was an impossible piece to play. And now, even youth orchestras play it very well and suddenly you are supposed to play bassoon very high when it was never done in the past,” he says. “It is part of a composer’s responsibility to push players to a place that they have never been before, and hopefully that is a never-ending process. The establishment’s role is always to object. But the artists and free-thinkers need to ignore all of this bullshit completely and try to overcome it.”
As for the orchestra over the next three years, Ilan plans to continue to deliver an exciting and diverse repertoire of material and hopes that the audience will grow to trust his artistic vision. “It’s important to me that we keep what we are doing fresh and that we continue on this journey of experiencing new things together with the audience,” he says. “Ideally the audience trusts the artistic vision of the orchestra, understands it and takes risks with it, perhaps going to a concert not knowing very much or any of the music, because you can trust that it will be a powerful experience.”
Indeed, after an hour of chatting with Ilan, I walk away trusting that we can, at the very least, expect the unexpected.
March gets a new modern music festival
This March, Ilan Volkov is launching a new modern music festival that corresponds with John Cage’s centennial anniversary. In addition to being an annual event on Reykjavík’s cultural calendar, he will also bring the festival to a new location starting next year with Glasgow with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Read on for some highlights of this exciting programme of fifteen concerts and events featuring more than 150 musicians, composers and amateurs…
Ilan tells me he has spent a lot of timing researching John Cage, and there will be a day in the festival dedicated to his work. “Two pieces are really interesting that day. One is ‘Fifty-eight’, which is a piece for a big wind brass band, and we are having young musicians from Iceland play that. It will be the big opening performance of the festival in the foyer area of Harpa on Thursday. It’s an un-conducted piece so everybody will be taking a lot of responsibility for the performance. The players will really be making composing decisions as performers. So it will be nice to get a different kind of energy and audience.”
The selections of John Cage pieces range the gamut from his early to late works. John Tilbury will be performing one of his really early pieces—a piano concerto—which Ilan says involves hours of preparing the piano to sound like a huge percussion instrument, with every note being specifically modified with different materials—sometimes rubber, sometimes coins. From his later works, the orchestra will perform a selection of time bracket pieces, which Ilan explains, have almost no score. “The musicians basically have to decide for themselves when to come in, and when to stop. Sometimes they have to decide the volume, and only the pitch is notated.”
Other Cage performances not to miss include ‘Improvisation III,’ which is a piece for cassettes that will be performed by musicians including Reptilicus, Slowblow and Stilluppsteypa, and ‘Music for Piano with Amplified Sonorous Vessels’ which involves sound amplifying vibrating vases in the hall.
There will also be a full day devoted to the Icelandic composer Magnús Blöndal. A pioneer in modernism during the Icelandic ‘50s and ‘60s, you could call him Iceland’s John Cage equivalent. “I decided in advance to focus on Magnús Blöndal’s music,” Ilan tells me. “People know it, but they never really hear it in a serious context.” After the orchestra performs a few of his pieces, local musicians—Ríkharður Friðriksson, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Kira Kira, and Auxpan—will pay homage to Magnús’ electronic music.
Finally, there will be a couple of world premieres over the weekend. One of them is a piece composed by Frank Denyer, especially written for Eldborg Hall. “We tried all kinds of acoustic things; he asked me to whistle and sing while he sat in the hall,” Ilan says. “It’s like doing something that fits the place and the orchestra, not just another kind of tick on something. It’s far more personal and you feel that right away.”
And Ilan himself will be debuting his collaboration with Oren Ambarchi, a piece for electric guitar and orchestra. “We are thinking about doing something with very little actually written. I will be using gestures to react with the orchestra to what he’s playing on the electric guitar. It’s kind of a new way of trying to do something,” he says, also admitting that he “has no clue how it will work yet.”
The festival takes place March 1 – 3 at Harpa. Tickets available here

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