The corridors in the basement of the decadent 19th-century masterpiece of architecture that is London’s Royal Albert Hall are teeming with musicians and hangers-on. The anticipatory energy is palpable as the Iceland Symphony Orchestra (ISO) gets ready to take the stage as a part of the BBC Proms.
The BBC Proms is a series of concerts held in this legendary hall in west London, and the festival is widely considered one of the more important events in the classical music calendar. This makes tonight’s excitement all the more understandable, as the ISO will be appearing on this fabled stage for the first time. One of the ISO’s group, however, appears considerably more stoic about it all, casually awaiting stage-time as the others rush around. This would be the ISO’s departing chief conductor and musical director, Ilan Volkov—a veteran of the event, tonight being his thirteenth consecutive Proms.
Ilan is leaving on a high note, with tonight’s gathering, the most prestigious the orchestra’s ever been a part of, doubling as the swan song of his three-year tenure with the ISO. Tonight’s programme consists of two 20th century Icelandic pieces, Beethoven’s 5th, and a Schumann piano concerto.
“I’m quite flexible with putting new music next to old workhorses,” Ilan tells me when I ask him about juxtaposing such famous pieces with others that have never been played in this hall. “Besides, an orchestra doesn’t only want to play new music. If you’re at the Proms for the first time you want to show off other facets of what you are capable of, rather than just play Icelandic pieces,” he finishes, before running onstage to commence tonight’s concert.
Is Iceland culture?
The Reykjavík Grapevine first interviewed the 38-year-old Israeli maestro a few months into his stint at the ISO (“Lighting A Fire Under The Orchestra,” Issue 02, 2012), and in that interview he spoke about what he hoped to achieve in his new post. When I catch up with him a few days after the Proms concert, I thus kick things off by taking stock of his achievements over the last three years. “When you come into a job like this you invariably face various issues,” he begins. He’s clearly in a more contemplative mindset than he was when we first spoke somewhere in the depths of Royal Albert Hall. “I did have a lot of freedom with the repertoire for the first couple of years, but financial constraints meant that we had to be a bit more careful with the programming in the final one.”
“My strategy may have backfired a bit, but I’m happy I pushed through,” he tells me. “As I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay with the orchestra, and seeing as we were moving into Harpa, I wanted to start straight away with Tectonics [an annual modern music festival he launched with the ISO] and a more contemporary programme of 20th century classics and so on. I’m happy I did that. I did however face quite a lot of issues that had nothing to do with me, so those weren’t easy.”
“I don’t think the orchestra’s been particularly happy for many years,” he continues when I ask him to elaborate on the aforementioned issues. “I think they feel they don’t have enough support for what they do from the government. This is obviously a bigger issue during these difficult times in Iceland, but what Iceland needs to ask itself is, how important is art and why do we have an orchestra? If its function is to inspire, comfort and educate, it needs strong and consistent support. I can’t really expect a lot of things if the situation is less than ideal.”
The reflective and quite sombre tone he’s taken leads me to wonder out loud whether it’s actually feasible to run such a large-scale orchestra in such a small country.
“Of course it’s feasible,” Ilan responds. “The issue isn’t about money, it’s simply whether we think culture is important or not? Do we want it as a tourist thing, a stamp that says ‘Iceland Is Culture,’ or do we really want to make it the best that it can be?”
Ilan is of the opinion that this particular problem isn’t unique to the orchestra, nor even Iceland. “Music in general can be a huge influence in society, and as such should be strongly supported by society, rather than be an added bonus that gets cut at every available opportunity,” he continues, “but even in places that have supported their arts very successfully it’s always the responsibility of the management and the conductor to be looking to make things better. The point isn’t to reign supreme in a status quo, as that’s not how you develop an arts organization. In that sense I’m very proud of what I’ve done with the orchestra. We managed to go to Washington and now the Proms, where we played four Icelandic pieces, and we worked with a lot of Icelandic composers and performers at Tectonics, so I feel we managed to achieve a lot.”
Torchbearers of musical experimentation?
Tectonics is certainly one of the more controversial aspects of Ilan’s tenure with the ISO. It’s a festival he curates and runs in a partnership with the orchestra and Harpa. The festival celebrates musical experimentation and improvisation, and at the same time gives the orchestra an opportunity to work in often highly unorthodox ways with a wide range of composers. Now in its third year, it has so far featured works by such modern powerhouse composers as John Cage, Alvin Lucier and Christian Wolff, as well as performances by self-proclaimed crypto-conceptual science fiction anti-band Asparagus Piss Raindrop, and the post-apocalyptic electro lunatics of Ghostigital.
“Orchestras don’t normally stage festivals, so it was a big challenge in every aspect,” Ilan says, and seeing as a festival like this can hardly be considered everybody’s cup of tea, it’s impressive to learn that not only is he scheduled to curate the festival again in Harpa in 2015 and 2016, but he has now expanded and is curating Tectonics festivals in Glasgow, Tel Aviv, Adelaide and New York.
“There’s a variety of facets to this festival,” he tells me when I inquire about the philosophy of the event. “A big aspect of it is working with younger musicians and composers, but we also work with a few massive legendary names that people rarely get the chance to hear performed in such a large-scale setting. In that sense, the aim is to get the orchestra to open its doors to many different musicians and artists—as well as other audiences—and try to provide an experience that is quite different from what people think an orchestra is or what is does.”
“Although the festival is obviously not exclusively about orchestral music, the orchestra lies at its core,” he continues. “Whilst it is an old established organization, it’s still got an amazing amount of flexibility and options. Giving young composers access to working with such a large range of instruments is important and can have some amazing results, especially if it’s happening every year. That way, we can hopefully hear development between composers and pieces influenced by each other. The orchestra can then hopefully become something that has movement. Something that shifts the ground and the perspective on what can be done orchestrally.”
It turns out that the festival’s title, “Tectonics,” isn’t just yet another lazy reference to Icelandic geography—it actually alludes to what Ilan hopes to achieve with the festival. Admittedly a layman in the field, I express my doubts that such a traditional organization would have any interest in being torchbearers of musical experimentation. And Ilan shoots me down before I even manage to utter the word “elitism.”
“Elitism isn’t an issue here”, he tells me. “The orchestra is just used to doing certain things in a certain way, and when asked to do something else it can be a bit of a shock. So things did happen, especially this year. The players all handled it very well in the end, but clashes are a part of this whole process. It’s even in the name, Tectonics. It’s not supposed to be easy for the listeners, the players nor for myself. It’s supposed to be something that people can argue about and discuss like any true exhibition or interesting artwork, and in that sense it worked really well with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.”
When I ask him if the Icelandic scene turned out to be what he’d hoped for, Ilan again grows contemplative. “The advantage I had coming to Iceland was that because everybody knows everyone, I already knew a lot of musicians and composers before I started. It’s a small scene in a small country, but for that it’s kind of amazing how many people are doing good music.”
Ilan is of the opinion that what characterizes the Icelandic music scene is the chameleon-like quality of the nation’s musicians. “There is a massive amount of people doing more than one thing, which I really like—people shift from being in bands to arranging or playing free-improvisation or whatever. I think this is partly by necessity, but also because of a certain spirit. The kind of music that is being created in Iceland isn’t actually super modern, really. It’s more about strong communication with an audience and emotions and ideas, with humour and energy playing a big part as well.”
Life after the ISO
Ilan himself is certainly a jack-of-all-trades. In addition to being a conductor and festival curator, he moonlights as a club promoter in Tel Aviv, and a musician. For example, the same weekend he conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at the Royal Albert hall, he played a free-improv concert with celebrated drummer Chris Corsano in London and a show in Glasgow with his violin duo Lovers Ritual.
“I think you’re trying to compartmentalize this too much, I’m not that far removed from the Icelandic musician that does a lot of different stuff,” he replies when I ask him about the many different aspects of his work. “My work is conducting and I want to keep doing that. Gradually over the last ten years I’ve been doing lots of other things, but it’s just a continuation of my interest in music. I love the contrast of working in different avenues, be it promoting, curating or playing, and I’m in an interesting position in that I can talk to people from different backgrounds that have different perspectives on what music, art—or even just life—is.”
“I don’t do this to confuse people, but right now I’m just doing what I do. I’ve stopped caring about what people expect me to do.”