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