Tag Archives: Ilan Volkov

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

There’s something about the “idée fixe” – a theme or motif composers weave and manipulate throughout a work to both unify and characterise their creations – that gets under your skin. It is a powerfully defining device that Berlioz, most of all, applied with obsessive emotional pungency to such Romantic epics as his Symphonie fantastique. But, just as in the psychological definition, it can be an irritating fixation. Whether or not it was her intention, and I suspect it was, Cassandra Miller plays that card to its extreme in her Duet for Cello and Orchestra.

That possibly wasn’t the reason conductor Ilan Volkov pitted these works against each other in Thursday’s thought-provoking BBC SSO programme, but it was hard not to be minded retrospectively of Miller’s, to some extent, cynical extremism in the later unfolding of Berlioz’s musical angst.

This was a return visit by the SSO, Volkov and soloist Charles Curtis to Miller’s concerto, which they premiered at the 2015 Tectonics Glasgow festival. Miller describes it as a homage to Sicilian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, and to be sure, its progressively intensified orchestral episodes emulate the syrupy, ecstatic ripeness of southern Italian folk music, in this case based on the actual Sardinian folk song, Trallallera. 

These glitzy repetitive sunbursts, dominated by a bullish and brazen SSO trumpet section, seemed intent on goading the intransigence of Curtis’ belligerent cello performance – for the most part an unceasing repetition of two oscillating notes – into action. It took most of the 30-minute duration for that to have the desired effect, like a release from an inescapable hypnotic nightmare, the cellist responding with a brief and final catharsis of stratospheric harmonics before abruptly signing off with a throwaway glissando. 

Volkov’s cool insistence, and the SSO’s charismatic response, captured the obstinacy of Millar’s quirky mindset. (For those taken by it, and with a propensity to travel, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester is presenting a day-long focus on Miller’s chamber and orchestral music on 19 October.)  

On its own, this concerto performance would have left us in a mild state of anxiety, but Berlioz’s effusive musical depiction, the Symphonie fantastique, of his infatuation for the actress Harriet Smithson – he subtitled it “Episode in the Life of an Artist” – provided a coruscating antidote. 

Once again, it was the tangible chemistry Volkov enjoys with an orchestra he has been associated with for the past 20 years that guaranteed the rollercoaster thrill. Every vivid scene, every emotional deviation in the fantastical journey, was heightened by a natural, visceral synergy, which the conductor inspired with an empowering economy of gestures.

The entire band swayed physically as one, negotiating the hazy uncertainty of the opening Daydreams, the whirling delirium of the Ball scene, the pastorale sentimentality of the Adagio, and the combined bombast and finality of the March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, with unfettered inevitability. This was a masterclass in disciplined passion, where less was very much more, where by keeping the eye on the ball – the centrifugal persistence of the idée fixe – this volcanic music ultimately took care of itself.

Ken Walton 

Repeated tonight (Fri 29 Sep) in Aberdeen Music Hall. Thursday’s live broadcast from Glasgow available on BBC Sounds for 30 days.

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

If anything marks the BBC SSO out as distinctive in Scotland – and there have to be certain benefits to that in a climate where strangulation of the arts is an existential threat – it is surely its commitment to the most challenging outposts of contemporary music. No other orchestra would or could place such unapologetic emphasis on it, let alone take the commercial risk.

Thursday’s programme was specifically designed, and recorded, for BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show, yet it was also a weirdly entertaining revelation for a sizeable audience curious to discover who composers Stefan Prins and Øyvind Torvund were, and how a concerto for electric guitar and a reworking of 1950s pop “exotica” might brighten up a drizzly Glasgow evening.

It probably wouldn’t have done so without SSO principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov, whose track record in exploring and communicating the wilder horizons of the contemporary landscape is second to none. With a few words of welcome, and an invitation to enter a psychedelic twilight zone, madcap ideas were transformed into stimulating sonic experiences.

Both performances were UK premieres, and both were delivered with utter commitment and consummate skill, right down to violinists bowing over aluminium foil-clad fingerboards in Prins’ 2021 concerto, under_current, or the simultaneous virtuoso whistling that cast an anarchic, playful mystique over the opening of Torvund’s The Exotica Album. 

Such were the bracing novelties of these substantial works. The visual power of under_current was awesome, electric guitarist Yaron Deutsch using his instrument more as a generator of effects facilitated by the pedals, cables and signal processing units surrounding him, and the totemic presence of a towering thunder machine centrally positioned behind the large orchestra.

There wasn’t a melody, hardly even a motif, in sight. With guttural explosions from the guitar, wailing responses from the orchestra, Prins’ 40-minute work consciously defies conventionality, perhaps over too long a time scale. But so visceral and purposeful was the playing that Deutsch silenced the audience during the final applause to say this was the best orchestra he’d ever played with. It was a tough gig for all of us, but Volkov’s self-belief turned this seeming jumble of nuts and bolts into something organically akin to a kinetic sculpture.

Where Prins’ music is uncompromising, Torvund’s The Exotica Album (Sinfonietta with modular synthesiser and saxophone) is a triumph of exaggerated nostalgic indulgence. Taking its lead from the origins of late-1950s “exotica” – Martin Denny’s album Quiet Village – Torvund sharpens the concept of seriousness versus kitsch to such the point it transmits as the musical equivalent of an LSD trip. 

Set in ten short movements – with titles like Starry Night, Wind up Paradise Birds, Rainbow Crystal and Jungle Alarm – the overriding sensation was one of escapism, where soaring Hollywood-style strings vied with synthesised birds and frenetic electronic bloops, courtesy of Jørgen Træn on “modular synthesiser and noise”, and the pungent, provocative sax of Kjetil Møster. 

It was enormously pleasant to listen to, those whistlers in the opening Ritual 1 initiating a prophetic sense of the surreal, later moments where you might imagine noted bird-enthusiast Messiaen encountering the Clangers, the occasional confectionary spillover into wacky cartoon land, the sassy honking polyphony of Jungle Alarm, but altogether a feast of titillating excess that proved the perfect complement to the earlier concerto, and transformed a journey into the unknown into an invigorating night of discovery. 

Ken Walton

Recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3’s New Music Show, then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds.

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

When the weather outside is frightful, the music can be delightful – and under the baton of Ilan Volkov it needs no garnish of tinsel and holly.

It was admirable how the BBC Scottish put some promotional muscle behind this typically bold programme from the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, which he enthusiastically commended to music-lovers who don’t feel the need to tuck in to the usual seasonal fare at this time of year. The result was a good attendance, doubtless including some who savour the taste of Volkov’s Tectonics weekend at the same venue in May.

The audience’s reward was a brilliantly-crafted concert, both in its planning and the way the different works – all from the last century but spanning six decades – spoke to one another, and in its execution by the musicians.

The earliest work was Debussy’s Jeux, composed to a Diaghilev commission at the same time as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but now as likely to be heard for a revival of the tennis court love triangle ballet as in the concert hall. It requires a vast orchestra (there were a few familiar faces from other Scottish outfits as well as freelances augmenting the SSO) and has a huge range of tonal colours. The perhaps predictable harps and flutes feature alongside an extended cor anglais solo and late interjections by the trombones.

What made all the details of the score leap out was the fact that Volkov had preceded it with the rarely-heard Xenakis work, Atrées. More by coincidence than design, the five movements of that piece, composed as the 1950s blossomed into the early 60s, utilised some similar instrumental techniques, picked out in detail by a very specific chamber octet, plus percussionists.

Long before the late Johann Johannsson’s career-making exploration of early IBM computing in Iceland, Xenakis was working with IBM France on music that explored probabilities and referenced mathematical thinking of three centuries previously. The result is a work that exploits the sonic range of each of the instruments as well as the orchestral possibilities of their combination, developing over its 15 minutes in a unique and compelling way. It demanded much of the players, but Volkov’s direction of them could not have been more lucid and precise.

Some of those sounds – especially the use of glissando and pizzicato – would be explored after the interval as well, when Bartok’s masterpiece Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste was prefaced by Ligeti’s Ramifications for strings, from the later 1960s.

Both works require mirroring symmetrical set-ups on stage, with the 12 stringed instruments in the Ligeti in two groups tuned a quarter-tone apart, a dissonance that is sometimes corrected by the fingering. Again it seems unlikely that Ligeti is specifically referencing the Bartok in any way, but Volkov had identified elements of shared language and common reluctance to settle for any conventional notions of harmony. Just as importantly, the exercise of listening to the Ligeti prepared audience ears to appreciate a stonking performance of the Bartok which was full of foreboding in its opening movement and gloriously expressive in its dancing finale.

It is hard to imagine anyone but Volkov delivering such an immaculately-structured programme, and ensuring that it was executed with such precision and finesse. Approaching two decades on from his arrival at Glasgow City Halls as a preciously young Chief Conductor, he still exacts the pinnacle of performance from the members of the BBC SSO.

Keith Bruce


City Halls, Glasgow

The latest post-pandemic cultural reinstatement got underway at the weekend with the first live Tectonics Festival in three years. Nothing has changed from the now time-honoured format, save the actual music of course, which is, as ever, cutting edge and slightly off the beaten track. 

It has remained contained within the City Halls complex in Glasgow – a timetabled procession, hither and thither, between the august Grand Hall, the cobbled Victorian street ambience of the Old Fruitmarket and the blinged-up retro elegance of the Recital Room. The mark of cofounders Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell persisted through the customary matrix of installations, discussion and concerts. New sounds, familiar setting.

It’s strange to think that the music of Janet Beat still counts among the former. Now in her eighties and quietly retired, it’s easy to forget that she played such a pioneering role, especially as a woman, in the development of electronic music, yet her music has remained in the shadows. Day 1 of Tectonics 2022 witnessed the first of two tribute concerts, The Beat Goes On, in her honour. At its heart, a performance in the Old Fruitmarket of Puspawarna, her 1989-90 piece for voice, gong and electronics, with Juliet Fraser as soprano soloist.

There’s an alluring datedness to the electronics dimension of this work, dominated – aside from Fraser’s dazzling incantations and the tolling gong – by the pungent persistence of a rhythmically sidestepping keyboard riff, much in the mould of early Messiaen. This was a captivating performance, surrounded either side of the Indonesian-influenced Puspawarna by contrasting improvised responses to Beat’s music.

While Japanese sound artist Yosuke Fujita’s Installation in the Recital Room remained self-functioning throughout the weekend, his live presentation on Saturday was the most visceral way to experience it. A thing of visual intrigue –  three miniature aquariums, from which he has synthesised water sounds, set around a primitive pipe organ and mixing desk – Fujita added his own vocalisations to the gradually metamorphosing soundscape, sometimes subliminal, other times gutteral, always with a sense of the spiritual.

It was back to the Old Fruitmarket for a brief double bill presented to some extent as a gladiatorial combat between Volkov and the BBC SSO in the world premiere of Joanna Ward’s “from the trees and from my friends (bean piece 3)” and Jamaican multi-instrumentalist Douglas R Ewart’s Red Hills, spiritedly performed under his direction by the super cool Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

Each band occupied opposing ends of the venue, requiring the audience to do a 180 degrees about-turn between pieces. First up, the awkward fascination of Ward’s itinerant experiment, SSO players constantly swapping positions as if engaging in some cross-contamination of musical chairs and speed dating, the music unfortunately forgettable. Ewart’s Red Hills, though, was an exuberant counterweight, its initial sultriness and composure exploding into a jam so energised and frenzied it had the joint jumping.

The big event on Saturday was the BBC SSO’s evening programme, which centred on premieres by French experimentalist Pascale Criton, American-born composer and sound designer Amber Priestley and the Norwegian visually-inspired composer Kristine Tjøgersen. 

Criton’s Alter, written during the pandemic and with a focus on the elemental transformation of sound and texture, re-introduced singer Juliet Fraser, whose own words fed into a vocal line initially inconsequential, but later powerful in echoing the increasing dramatic narrative of the music.

The SSO, as always, found infinite purpose in Alter’s expressive message, equally so in Priestley’s  For Jocelyn Bel Burnell, its title referring to the astrophysicist who discovered pulsars, the process of which Priestley reimagines as a conflict between gravitational references to Beethoven by the main stage ensemble, and ephemeral overlay by the assorted musicians spread all around the audience. The surround experience was exhilarating, the piece itself unhelpfully prolix. What started as a mesmerising juxtaposition turned eventually into an alien invasion.

Volkov saved the best till last, Tjøgersen’s Between Trees, its provocative colours and delicate nuances magically assimilating in a performance that matched ear-catching detail and ample literalism (the odd cuckoo among a clamour of birdcalls and other allusions to the natural world) with the collective clout of its structural arch. Tjøgersen’s background observance of traditional vocabulary made her exploration of new horizons all the more exciting. 

Ken Walton

(Photo: Alex Woodward)

The majority of Tectonics performances were recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 & BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

Bruno Maderna’s music deserves greater prominence than it gets in today’s concert billings. As an active, if largely underrated, figure in the European postwar avant-garde, who mentored such slightly younger luminaries as Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez, he has never quite attained the lasting presence he deserves. 

Thanks, then, to Ilan Volkov and the BBC SSO for building a programme – at least the first half of last Thursday’s afternoon concert – around his exuberant and acerbic Venetian Journal, a concert-style monodrama, written two years before his death in 1973, which paints a wacky vision of James Boswell’s 18th century visit to Venice, as documented with plentiful self-conceit in the Scots diarist’s own colourful recollections.

Scored for tenor, orchestra and tape, there was no mistaking, in this brilliantly wicked and wittily-presented performance, parallels to Peter Maxwell Davies’ anarchic music theatre pieces that would have been emerging around the same time. But Maderna’s voice is a wholly individual one, his textures clean and sparkling, expressive of a musical language that remains incisive and distinctive even when it makes carping jokes or travels in time.

Venetian Journal explodes into life with a vying racket of pre-recorded operatic snatches and orchestral gunfire, the soloist – the animated tenor Benjamin Hulett – entering as the fatuous Boswell, initially calming the menagerie, but soon summoning the bluster and gaucheness necessary to match the music’s restless narrative.

Hullet played a blinder, accentuating the pomposity of the character through his impressive vocal agility. It was left to the compact instrumental ensemble to capture the multiple excesses, not least the score’s high-speed, cartoon-like volatility and irrepressible sense of ridicule and laughter. Its sardonic directness was right up Volkov’s street.

So was Maderna’s Tre pezzi, a chamber ensemble arrangement of three pieces by the seminal Italian Baroque composer, Frescobaldi, which projects the original music through a modern-day lens. On he one hand, Volkov elicited a warm and comforting period sound from the players, while at the same time capturing the crystalline quirks – the obsessive accentuated prominence given to cellular motifs – with which Maderna opens our eyes to the inner workings of Renaissance polyphony. 

Genuine French Baroque opened the concert’s second half, an orchestral suite by Rameau (edited by Nicholas McGegan) from his 1749 opera Naïs. Here was further opportunity for the SSO to show off its stylistic adaptability, which it did with finely-honed discipline, but with plentiful ruggedness and exuberance to express the celebratory nature of this musical response to the termination of the War of Austrian Succession. 

As if to offer a right to reply, it was an Austrian symphony that concluded this engagement, Haydn’s Symphony No 82, The Bear. The subtitle wasn’t Haydn’s, and is essentially irrelevant. But there was adequate vigour and sturdy, irrepressible momentum in this performance to warrant a nod in its favour. It was also elegant, and yet another riveting example of the chemistry between Volkov and the SSO.

Ken Walton 

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds


This year’s Tectonics Glasgow Festival (30 April – 1 May) will focus on the music of Janet Beat, the 84-year-old pioneering Glasgow-based composer who, in the 1950s, was among the first British woman to explore the potential of electronics music composition. 

Beat – who in 2019 received the first ever Scottish Women in Music Lifetime Achievement Ward, and only last year released her debut album “Pioneering Knob Twiddler” – will be featured through works for solo performer and electronics, performed by members of the BBC SSO and British soprano Juliet Fraser. Fraser also forms part of the 4-artist line-up in a tribute programme, the Beat Goes On, featuring live sets by experimentalist performers Andie Brown, Sharon Gal and Ailie Ormston.

The 2022 event, centred at Glasgow’s City Halls and Old Fruitmarket and with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at its core, marks the event’s first return to live performance after two years of Covid-enforced online presentation. Co-curated by founder and conductor Ilan Volkov and creative sound producer Alasdair Campbell, the two-day programme will also feature 5 world premieres, together with an installation and performances by the Japanese-based sound artist FUJI||||||||||TA.

There will be brand new BBC commissions for orchestra by Pascale Criton, Joanna Ward and Amber Priestley, further new works by creative duo Cassandra Miller and Silvia Tarozzi and James Weeks, and UK premieres from Liza Lim and Kristine Tjøgersen.  

Other Festival highlights include collaborations by sound artist Russell Haswell and violist Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaig with members of the SSO. French bassist Joëlle Léandre teams up with Jamaican composer, improviser, sculptor and instrument-maker Douglas R Ewart, whose 1979 conceptual instrumental work Red Hills will be performed by the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

The majority of performances will be recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3, including a special edition of the New Music Show on 7 May. Some performances, still to be confirmed, will also be available to watch digitally.

Booking opens Friday 4 March at 10am.  Further details can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/tectonics

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

The moment the BBC SSO struck up its first notes in Thursday’s all-French concert, there was an energy and richness in attack that made this listener sit up and take notice. They were playing under principal guest conductor (and one-time chief conductor) Ilan Volkov and it was as if someone had inserted fresh batteries. Long lasting ones at that.

The programme itself was hot-wired, a journey through the gauche eccentricities of Germaine Tailleferre and Francis Poulenc towards a second half dedicated to the more familiar territory of Camille Saint Saëns’ Organ Symphony.

The last of these may be well-known – not least via Hollywood’s theft of the big maestoso theme for a film about a Yorkshire pig – but here was a performance that took care to identify the subtleties and genius of Saint-Saëns’ orchestral vision. Every bar seemed to have been re-considered by Volkov, moments where he hushed the string to reveal jewel-like counterpoints in the woodwind, more marked articulations that took any stodginess out of the finale, replacing it with freshness, light and directional intent.

Organist Michael Bawtree, for all that he was handicapped to an extent by a digital organ incapable of fully capturing the visceral sparkle of the closing moments, bought into Volkov’s detailed approach, establishing especially a transfixing, timeless calm in the slow movement.

The symphony was also an affirmative response to a first half full of high jinks, firstly in Tailleferre’s playful Le marchand d’oiseaux, a virtuosic 1923 ballet score driven equally with fickleness and sensuous melody, and then in Poulenc’s rarely-heard Concerto for two pianos, featuring the pianists Naïri Badal and Adélaïde Panaget, known collectively as Duo Jatekok.

If the Tailleferre seemed capricious, the Poulenc was superbly madcap, Badal and Panaget playing to its brilliant absurdities, ranging from cartoonesque catch-me-if-you-can moments to those of utterly prepossessing sensuality. Volkov’s control of the orchestra was again perceptive and vital, with just the odd momentary lapse in synchronisation between widely spaced players.

The fun continued in the first of two encores, an elaborate and luscious arrangement for two pianos of Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen, before ending with Kurtag’s sublime piano duet arrangement of Bach’s Sonatina from the Cantata Actus Tragicus.  

A postscript to a delightful concert. Thomas Dausgaard’s inconsistent six-year tenure as chief conductor of the SSO ends this summer. There are no obvious successors surfacing with the ability and compatibility to turn the orchestra’s fortunes around. Volkov has done it before, and maintains – as this concert proves – a fresh and dynamic chemistry with the players. Would he consider doing it again?

Ken Walton

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a later date

BBC SSO: Volkov / Evans

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

This was foreign territory for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, decamped from its home at Glasgow’s City Halls to the Royal Concert Hall due to essential repair works at the former, but in this case it was a helpful move. For there was much in this curious journey into the hinterland of late-20th/21st century American music  – neatly packaged as “States of America” – that could have done serious damage to our ear drums in the smaller City Halls.

It wasn’t so much the loudness of the music – in fact much of it was intensely suppressed in volume – as the unrelenting obsessiveness contained in these four works by Courtney Bryan, Talib Rasul Hakim, Eleanor Hovda and Lucia Dlugoszewski. Two of them – Bryan’s White Gleam of our Bright Star and Dlugoszewski’s Abyss and Caress – were UK premieres.

Needless to say, this was devised and conducted by Ilan Volkov, whose unquenchable thirst for difficult, offbeat contemporary scores has long made Glasgow concert-going the adventure into the unknown it so often is. Once again, he communicated his astute and precise understanding of complex ideas to the obliging SSO, whose realisation of the seemingly impossible was, at times, mind-blowing.

Bryan’s short opener, commissioned by the Colorado Springs Philharmonic in 2016, was relatively easy listening. The density of its colours, shaded with a ghostly fragility, reflects the composer’s preoccupations with “themes of sister/brotherhood, freedom and equality”, heightened by an excessive climax whose dissonance seems to shatter the cosiness of the traditional American big band sound, which it alludes to, and from which softer questioning emerges, still tainted by mildly troubling contradictions.

Hakim’s Visons of Ishawara dates back half a century, and boy does it smack of the grim aesthetic of the 1970s. From the very outset it’s as if we’re thrown into the furious melodrama of a period TV horror soundtrack: the ritualistic pounding of the bass drum; the lugubrious idealism of the wilting flute melody; a febrile hyperactive narrative that tries too hard to keep up with the action. It will have been a trip down memory lane for listeners of a certain vintage, trip being the operative word

If there was promise of calm to follow in the hushed tones of Hovda’s Fields 87, its dynamic and timbral containment ultimately led to an uncomfortable sense of sensory asphyxiation. Operating at a micro level, its journey is an almost imperceptible metamorphosis that, despite one momentary outburst, remains stifling to the end. Nonetheless, the SSO furnished it with the utmost sensitivity.

The single post-interval work provided a much-needed release: Dlugoszewski’s 1975 Abyss and Cares for trumpet and orchestra, which is frankly barmy. Not once does its frenzied tempo let up, nor does its crazed language – superhuman trumpet techniques allied to weird string effects and wind players that double on swanee whistles – offer a moment of conventional respite.

It was superbly performed, the astounding New York trumpeter Peter Evans negotiating Dlugoszewski’s boundless demands with uncanny proficiency, from whispered stratospheric heights to guttural grunts and snorts, and all at twice the speed of sound. Volkov instilled an unrelenting volatility in a performance that could so easily have been the soundtrack to a crazed convention of cartoon heroes. 

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

Tectonics Shifts Online

Violinist Ilya Gringolts talks to KEITH BRUCE about Tectonics and his new commissioning foundation with conductor Ilan Volkov.

From the mouths of some musicians, the assurance to a Scottish journalist that “it is always a joy to come back – Scotland is one of the best places to be at any time of the year” might sound like an audience-pleasing platitude. Not violinist Ilya Gringolts though, who is a man as renowned for his plain-speaking as his virtuosic playing, and varied repertoire.

Lest there be any doubt that he means what he says, however, he adds a codicil: “I am from St Petersburg, so I grew up with bad weather. We take it for granted.”

Of course, at the present time he is not coming back at all, although he is a crucial presence in the upcoming Tectonics weekend of contemporary and experimental music with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, co-curated by its principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov and promoter Alasdair Campbell.

Having been cancelled last May, this year Tectonics is an online and on-air event over two days and Gringolts is contributing filmed performances of works that have been commissioned through a new foundation he and Volkov have established. [As previously reported in Vox Carnyx]

In the two decades before the pandemic, Gringolts was a very frequent visitor to Scotland. He was a guest soloist at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival in 2004 and 2008 and until recently the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s International Fellow of Violin. His association with the SSO goes back to appearances under the baton of Osmo Vanska as a teenager. “I have had a relationship with the orchestra for more than 20 years,” he says, “and it has been wonderful every time.”

That Glasgow is still firmly on the violinist’s map should be a matter of civic pride. From his studies in St Petersburg, Gringolts moved to the Juilliard School in New York and the tuition of Itzhak Perlman, before becoming one of the earliest beneficiaries of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists programme. He has been settled in Zurich with his Armenian violinist wife Anahit Kurtikyan, who is a principal in the opera orchestra, Philharmonia Zurich, for 14 years. The couple have three young daughters: two more violinists and a pianist.

Switzerland has been much slower than the UK to vaccinate its population, Gringolts tells me, with only 10 per cent of the population having had both shots when we talk, and his own age group – he’s 38 – not likely to figure in the programme until July at the earliest. This is a matter of more than passing interest to the violinist, who was ill with Covid in January.

“It wasn’t pleasant; I wouldn’t recommend it. And I still have periods when I feel very weak,” he says. Quite recently he checked himself back into hospital, having spent ten days very ill.

As in other cities in Europe, Zurich went through the trauma of opening up too early last autumn and cultural events are only now very slowly resuming. The Tonhalle Orchester is permitting audiences of just 50 and playing its first concerts three times over two days, and the opera house has some small-scale shows scheduled for May.

We are now accustomed to learning of silver linings to the coronavirus crisis, and, before he became ill, there was one for Gringolts and Volkov, in the aftermath of the cancellation of Tectonics 2020.

“I had always admired Ilan’s active engagement with the world of new music and his expertise and fascination with it. A very important part of what I do is working with composers but we have lost the connection with living composers that was common 100 years ago. As performers we have become disengaged with new music and wait for things to be offered to us.

“If we don’t continue to pursue new music as performers, sooner or later it will disappear and I don’t want that to happen. During the first lockdown I had the time to think about all that.”

The upshot of which was the registration, in June 2020, of the Zurich-based I & I Foundation, established by Ilya and Ilan, with some heavyweight support. Verbier Festival founder Martin Engstroem, composer Michael Jarrell and star violinist and conductor Maxim Vengerov (who is married to Gringolts’ sister, Olga) are backers, and cultural manager Dorothy Yeung, banker Davide Petrachi and lawyer Anna-Naomi Bandi-Lang serve on the board, the latter as President.

The foundation’s aim, says Gringolts, is simple to describe: linking composers to performers.

“The two are disconnected. We are in the communication business, bringing these people together. Ilan knows young composers who have things to say creatively, and I have colleagues who are too shy or afraid to ask.”

The initial strategy is through “micro-commissions” for solo player or small ensemble, and two of those will be performed by Gringolts as part of Tectonics, filmed in a verdant Budapest location that the violinist intriguingly describes as “a bit Jurassic Park – with palm trees and lots of light and space”.

Young American composer Sky Macklay’s Trrhythms uses short, rhythmic phrases over and over, as its title suggests. Previously commissioned by Chamber Music America and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, her music also includes a chamber opera voicing the doubts of a uterus about the necessity of child-bearing.

Tokyo-based Yu Kuwabara’s Bai and Dharani is based on the composer’s ten-year research into Japanese Buddhist vocal music, Shomyo. “That was a revelation to me,” says Gringolts, “and the violin is not the first instrument you would think of to explore it.”

“We have 12 commissions running, and so far half of them are from me, but that balance will change. It’s not really about me and Ilan. We will come to larger works that require more funding, and work with promoters who are willing to pool resources.”

The key aim of the I & I Foundation is to streamline and simplify the commissioning process and speed up the business of having original music heard, and the swiftness with which the foundation went from being an idea to a reality is emblematic, despite the pandemic prohibiting face-to-face meetings.

“All of this was accomplished on the phone and by Zoom, with Ilan in Tel Aviv, and that didn’t make any difference. Humans can get used to everything. The pandemic gave it urgency, as well as the time to think and realise these projects without other priorities distracting.

“But of course I miss the live experience and it is important that we get back to it – and stay safe and healthy.”

The rest of the year is already shaping up to be busy for Gringolts, with a second volume of Schoenberg’s music recorded by his quartet (which also includes his wife) in March and concerts scheduled for later in the year. In the first lockdown the violinist continued his exploration of baroque violin, discovering more pieces that he wants to play in concert and on record.

“I have new pieces to learn for the autumn as well, and ten students to teach at Zurich University. There are lots of things to do.”

Ilya Gringolts performs at Tectonics 2021 on Saturday and Sunday May 8 & 9. bbc.co.uk/sso

Tectonics online and on-air

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has announced that its annual weekend of new and experimental music, curated by principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov and events promoter Alasdair Campbell, will go ahead this year on May 8 and 9.

Only weeks after last year’s programme had been announced, the 2020 event was one of the early casualties of the pandemic, with an immediate promise that it would return in 2021.

While audiences will still be unable to fill the many spaces of Glasgow’s City Halls and Old Fruitmarket complex for what has become a hugely popular event, a full programme of pre-recorded online performances and late-night broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 is promised this year.

The orchestra has three broadcast concerts before then, two of them also available to view on the BBC iPlayer. The second of those is a 50th birthday concert by Steven Osborne, who is celebrating that same anniversary with a recital at London’s Wigmore Hall on Friday March 12. The Glasgow concert is on Thursday, April 22 and is conducted by Martyn Brabbins. In a programme of music by Copland and Shostakovich, Osborne plays the Russian’s Piano Concerto No.2, which was written a birthday present for the composer’s son, Maxim. It is bracketed by Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite and Quiet City, and the concert concludes with the suite Shostakovich made from his music for an avant-garde 1930s production of Hamlet.

Earlier in April, violin and piano duo Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, whose kaleidoscopic home music sessions were one of the online hits of lockdown, join the orchestra to co-direct a programme entitled “Dreamscapes”. The title work, for violin and chamber orchestra is by Brazilian composer Clarice Assad, and is based on the composer’s researches into Rapid Eye Movement sleep. It is preceded by Arvo Part’s atmospheric and haunting Spiegel im Spiegel and Gerard Finzi’s Eclogue for Piano and Strings, and followed by Mendelssohn’s D Minor Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Orchestra, 54 years after the orchestra broadcast the UK premiere of the work.

The SSO is also in action next week, again under Brabbins and again available to view on the BBC i-Player. Sheku Kanneh-Mason is the soloist for the Dvorak Cello Concerto, performed on Thursday March 11 in George Morton’s reduced orchestration. The concert begins with contemporary American composer Augusta Read Thomas’s Plea for Peace and concludes with Sir James MacMillan’s signature 1989 work, Tryst.

Volkov’s New Commission Body

Ilan Volkov, principal guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, has teamed up with violinist Ilya Gringolts, currently a Violin International Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, to launch a new Zurich-based Foundation that will offer worldwide support for the composition, performance and funding of new music.

The I&I Foundation will aim to commission up to 20 new works each year from emerging composers from around the world beginning in 2021. Among the first five recipients is the young Manchester-based composer and improviser Lawrence Dunn, who is joined by others from Russia, Israel, Japan and the USA. 
Among the key aims of the initiative are commitments to streamlining the commissioning process, shortening the usual delays between commission and performance, and offering financial payment to composers at the start of the commissioning process rather than just at the end. The emphasis, according to Volkov, will be on shorter “micro-commissions” so that the process is as fast, efficient and effective as possible.

Volkov, who founded and curates the global contemporary music phenomenon Tectonics, that has an annual festival residency in Glasgow, is well known in Scotland for his championing of progressive new music with the BBC SSO ever since his original appointment as its principal conductor in 2003. 

“I love performing works by established composers, but for me, my most important role is to look towards the unseen,” he says. “With the foundation I look forward to starting a long and positive process of working with composers, helping them develop their careers, having their music heard, recorded and better known. If we then see some of these names suddenly being commissioned by huge organisations, then we’ll know we’ve done the right thing at the right time.”

Further information on www.iandifoundation.org