No place like home

Globetrotting conductor Ilan Volkov is back in Israel to kick off the new season of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra

volkov 248.88 (photo credit: )
volkov 248.88
(photo credit: )
As many a marketing executive will tell you, when the going gets tough, go for the beaten path. Judging by the lineup for its upcoming new season, that seems to be a tenet eagerly adopted by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO). The season, which opens at the Jerusalem Theater on September 9 with a highly varied program that includes a contemporary work by late JSO musical director Lukas Foss, Haydn's Symphony No. 31 and several works by Ravel, comprises two series. The first is based on a marathon format, used in the past by the JSO to great effect. The "marathon" element refers to the fact that each evening is devoted to works by a single composer and that the program is long, starting at 7 p.m. and ending near midnight. That said, the first marathon evening features pieces by several composers. "It just worked out that way," says guest conductor Ilan Volkov, adding that even so, there is some thematic homogeneity to the program. "We wanted to have a tribute to Foss [who died earlier this year at age 86]. We are also playing pieces by Haydn to mark the 200th anniversary of his death, and Ravel was heavily influenced by him. There are differences between them, but they both add color and both had a sense of humor. They were also precise rather than bombastic in their writing, and their orchestrations are amazing." Volkov's guest slot with the JSO, to complement the efforts of the orchestra's musical director Leon Botstein, is quite a feather in the JSO's cap. Volkov, in his early 30s, has already chalked up numerous successes across the globe and was the youngest chief conductor of a BBC orchestra, holding that position with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra for seven years and earning rave reviews. He is also co-owner of the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv, which hosts an eclectic selection of shows, from avant-garde jazz to pop and electronic material, with some classical music thrown in for good measure. Volkov says he is delighted to be partly based back in Israel and to be involved with the JSO. "This is an orchestra with a proud past, and it has a lot of potential." Considering the tricky financial waters the orchestra has had to navigate in recent years, those are encouraging words. "The JSO has been through some hard times. It's a bit early to say that all is well, but there is definitely room for optimism." That sentiment is shared by the orchestra's management committee chairman and former director general of the IBA, Yair Stern. "We're not out of the woods yet," he says, "but things have improved. But there is always concern over funding. We get most of our financial support from the IBA, and we're also supported by the Culture Administration, to an extent by the Jerusalem Municipality and by our Friends Association in the US. But with the global economic crisis, we've been getting fewer donations from abroad." All the above sources of cash are augmented by ticket sales. According to Volkov, the orchestra is doing okay in that area. "Audiences for classical music are growing the world over, as well as here. And it's not just the over-60s who are coming. I see young people and teenagers in audiences." In a world of MTV and YouTube clips, that is somewhat of a surprise. But Volkov feels that music consumers want something more tangible than instant virtual entertainment. "It is the real things in the music that appeal to people," he explains. "But you have to make an audience feel good about what they're getting from the stage. They shouldn't feel like the music is way over their head. They should feel that it is accessible." Paradoxically, that's where the Internet comes in. "With sites like YouTube, people anywhere in the world can hear and see performances of classical music," says Volkov. "That makes it all more familiar and less frightening for them. And it breaks down cultural barriers. But there is no substitute for live concerts, for the experience of seeing and hearing the music being produced on a stage in front of you." Meanwhile, Stern feels the JSO and other orchestras have a long road to travel before they can be confident of packing them into their concert halls. "Education is very important, and not enough is done in schools here to bring children up with classical music and make it an integral part of their lives." Last year the JSO attempted to address that sector by having concerts aimed at the junior crowd. "That helped, but it is about getting to grips with the roots - at school." As a perennial globetrotting conductor, Volkov is well aware of the degree of state support from which many of the JSO's rivals benefit abroad. "There is very little government support here for the arts, but it is a matter of priorities. Here we have wars and security situations that other countries in, say, Europe don't have to address. I'm sure the public would rather we spent money on the arts than on arms but, unfortunately, that's the way it is here." The marathon format is one of the marketing ploys the JSO uses to try to appeal to as wide a cross-section of the public as possible. "I think people appreciate choice," says Stern. "Our marathons alternate between chamber music and full orchestral formats. So when people buy a ticket for a marathon, they can choose to attend the chamber music part at the start of the evening and then, if they want to skip the middle full orchestra slot, go to the chamber music part at the end of the evening, or vice versa." Volkov also believes in the variegated approach. "We have vocalists - people often prefer vocal music - and various soloists, and we try to perform different kinds of works. It's important to maintain an audience's interest and to win and retain their trust. It's not like going to a museum or an art gallery to look at a few pictures. We are asking an audience to spend an hour or two, or even longer, with us. That is both a demanding and a rewarding experience for the public." Still, Volkov is both hopeful and confident that Israeli audiences will grow. "I think people are more open today and more receptive to different kinds of classical works. I just conducted two concerts at the Proms [the annual concert series at London's Royal Albert Hall]. We played some quite demanding pieces, and the audience was fine with it. They were attentive and they got it. People in Israel are also open. You have to work with passion and care. If you do that, the public will get it." In addition to the Marathon series, the forthcoming season also includes a Classical series featuring the works of the classical masters. The series kicks off on September 16 and 17 with Botstein conducting a program that includes Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, Symphony No. 8 and the Leonora Overture. For more information, visit or call 566-0211.