Music that Changed Me
Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov
Music was all around me when I was young. My father was pianist with the Israel Piano Trio, and I used to go to his concerts and hear him teach. Above all I remember him playing the Brahms and Schubert Trios, and it is still very emotional for me to hear them. I myself started playing the violin at around six years old and the piano later. I don’t think I was that talented as a player, but I was very interested in music from an early age, and started reading scores while listening when I was very young. The first thing I listened to a lot was a six-lp STRAVINSKY set called Nine Masterpieces Conducted by the Composer, which has the likes of The Rite of Spring and The Firebird plus later works such as Symphony of Psalms. You could delve into it for hours. Stravinsky wasn’t an amazing conductor technically, but this set began a bit of an obsession with his work.
When I was 13, we lived in Munich for a year. Sergiu Celibidache was conducting the Munich Philharmonic, so I used to go to a lot of concerts, plus there was the Biennale of New Music. My interest in new music really started, though, when I went to the Dartington Summer School, where my father was teaching. I remember going with him to a Vinko Globokar concert, a Michael Finnissy concert and these very strange latenight concerts, and feeling the excitement of seeing something that I didn’t really know or understand. My father was curious about music, and that curiosity was possibly the most important thing he gave to me.
In the early 1990s, when I was about 15 or 16, a wave of early music recordings came out. John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of MONTEVERDI’S L’orfeo has a crazy line-up of singers – Anne Sofie von Otter, Willard White and so on – but for me it was not so much the singing that was amazing as moments such as the very opening and various powerful scenes. They seemed so modern in a way – the use of voices and instruments was so original. Later, I met Gardiner and he invited me to sit in on his rehearsals.
At about the same time, I also discovered MUSORGKY’S songs, performed by Boris Christoff. He had this remarkable voice – it was scary stuff! It was incredible hearing this Russian text and Musorgsky’s way of writing, which was very specific, very simple and leans a lot towards folk music. Original and unique, the songs are perfect in so many ways.
When I came to London to study in the mid-1990s, PIERRE BOULEZ was doing a big Messiaen festival with the LSO. I’d heard a number of his performances on disc, but to come and see him conduct 20th-century music live was so crucial to me, and I was also lucky to get the chance to have a masterclass with him – I learnt a lot about going into detail and learning to understand and analyse a whole piece. At the time, I bought a fivecd compilation of his performances, with pieces on it by composers including Schoenberg, Berio, Carter and Kurtág.
It was wonderful to work with composer FRANÇOIS-BERNARD MÂCHE when I did my first concert with the Ensemble Contemporain last year. He has been doing electronic and acoustic music since the 1950s, but has also always been doing his own thing recording animals and languages around the world and using it in his music – making field recordings of this type is commonplace these days, but he and his contemporaries really started it off. His Kassandra is a piece from the 1970s for brass, wind, piano and a tape part that is full of nature sounds and languages which I’m looking forward to performing again at the Tectonics festival.
modern monteverdi: ‘His use of voices and instruments was so original’ BORN IN ISRAEL in 1976, Ilan Volkov studied at the Royal College of Music in London. After serving as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, he was appointed principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from 2003-9. Also formerly music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, since 2012 he has curated Tectonics festivals in both Reykjavík and Glasgow to explore contemporary music. This year’s Tectonics Glasgow festival takes place from 6-7 May.