Saturday, 23 August 2014

Ilan Volkov Iceland Symphony Orchestra Tectonic Classics Prom

"Classical tectonics" - strange name for Ilan Volkov's Prom 48, but pretty good for a Prom featuring the music of Iceland.  A friend of mine loved Iceland because he said it was like no other place on earth. Most of the country is uninhabitable and closed off completely in winter. The people are fiercely independent, yet close knit. They formed one of the world's first consultative democracies.  The landscape seems bleak until you realize it's constantly changing. Lava and magma and emission of gas and water, volcanoes and earth movements, steam in the air that freezes. Time seems ambiguous, too, he said. Sagas and tales of ancient heroes haunt the land, my friend says, even though no-one talks about it.

Landscape as metaphor for music. Haukur Tómasson's Magma operates on multiple levels at once, distinct ideas operating separately and together, moving forwards with unstoppable force. This is  new music anyone can access if they use their imaginations. It borrows the majesty of the earth itself and transforms the emotions generated in us into abstract form.

Jón Leifs' Geysir added to the magic.  Needless to say, you could listen and imagine geysers bursting from the bowels of the earth, and so on. Liefs has a cult following because his music is strikingly modern and yet emotionally vivid. Around 10 years ago BIS issued most of his published music, including the wonderful Hekla. It's extraordinarily atmospheric, but also works as abstract music because it's very well crafted and sophisticated. Think of  Harrison Birtwistle's Earth Dances and his shifting tectonic plates of sound. Click here for a link to Hekla and to my 2011 post on Harpa Hall, home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. .

When Ilan Volkov became Chief Conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in January 2011, i wrote "Iceland punches bigger than its size". Iceland might be small but it has vision. The world banking crisis began in part in Iceland, but the country sorted out much of the mess in a way Britain and the US probably wouldn't dare. When Volkov went to Iceland, he did himself, and the country, a world of good.

Volkov seems an ideal choice too since he's adventurous and innovative,  sympathetic to ideals, yet also the kind of conductor who works well with musicians who might not have the polish of, say, the Berliners and Viennese. More power to the Icelanders for that. Their Beethoven 5th might have been pretty ordinary but they sounded like they were enjoying themselves. The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms was decidedly rough technically, but they played with verve and obvious engagement and carried much of the audience with them for that very reason. The same cannot be said of some of the other international orchestras this season, some of which were so dull that even world famous conductors couldn't resuscitate them. .As the OAE slogan goes "Not all orchestras are the same".

Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor was played by Jonathan Biss. This was infinitely more rewarding than the Bernard Rands Concerto for piano and Orchestra last week, which might well take the prize as the least new piece of new music this year against formidable competition, from composers living and dead.  Thinking of Leifs and formidable landscapes, Sibelius's Symphony no 7 is so original and so tightly crafted that it says so much in 17 minutes that even Sibelius might have been daunted to top that. 

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