Life & Culture

He’s young, Israeli and the beating heart of the Proms

At only 32, Ilan Volkov is the conductor of a major orchestra, and about to star in London. He talks to Rodney Greenberg


Three years ago, a blaze in a basement bar at the Royal Albert Hall triggered the sprinkler system and caused a power failure, resulting in the cancellation of a Prom — something not even wartime air-raids over London achieved.

There will be sparks at the Albert Hall again tonight, but, one hopes, with far happier results. Stravinsky’s Fireworks will light the touch paper for the 115th season of the BBC Proms, setting off the world’s biggest cavalcade of classical music.

Between now and the Last Night on September 12, the London venue will host 76 concerts. Add 19 at Cadogan Hall and five “Proms In The Park” around the UK and the tally is a record-breaking 100 — plus films, talks and discussions.

In 2006, the sprinklers sabotaged Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, known as the Choral because of solo singers and chorus in the finale. This year, on August 15, Beethoven’s monumental score will be in the hands of the brilliant 32-year-old Israeli conductor, Ilan Volkov.

Two days earlier (on August 13) he will be conducting Stravinsky’s orchestral showpiece, The Rite of Spring. Volkov says the two concerts are “a wonderfully fitting finale to my time as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It’s great to have two pillars of the symphonic repertoire — the Rite, and Beethoven’s Ninth. We’ve done them this season in Glasgow, so we have them under our belt.”

He is also conducting a new cello concerto by Korean composer Unsuk Chin. She studied with Ligeti, the Jewish Hungarian composer whose evocative Atmosphères is programmed for September 4).

Both of Volkov’s Proms are among the 25 being televised, and they mark his departure from the Scottish Symphony Orchestra to concentrate on freelance engagements — “I’m working much more in Israel, and continuing to do a bit more in Europe and the USA,” he says. At 26, he was the youngest conductor ever to be put in charge of a BBC orchestra, and will remain their principal guest conductor.

Volkov was born near Tel Aviv and grew up in Herzliya. He learned piano, violin and conducting before coming to London aged 17 to study at the Royal Academy of Music. His tutor at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy was the influential conductor Mendi Rodan, who died in May. Rodan saw his pupil become Seiji Ozawa’s assistant at the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the age of only 23.

Volkov’s wife, Maya Dunietz, is an Israeli singer and pianist, and they have a two-year-old daughter, Nadia. “I’m not going to push her to be a musician,” he says. His father passed away three years ago, but his mother, Shulamit Volkov, keeps abreast of political developments. “She is a Jewish-German historian, so she’s kind of used to the history of the Jewish diaspora.”

There’s a sister, a brother and “quite a lot of family” in Israel. “But actually, I haven’t worked so much in Israel for the past 15 years. I feel myself a kind of British artist. I’ve never sought to meet large numbers of the Jewish community in the UK, but I enjoyed going to WIZO events in Glasgow, and I’ve a lot of Israeli and Jewish friends in London.”

How does he regard the high-profile Middle East peace efforts being made by Daniel Barenboim, who is again conducting his Israeli-Arab orchestra (now in its 10th year) at the Proms? “I come from a similar background in one sense,” says Volkov. “But I’m from a different generation. Daniel is doing an amazing thing, but he’d agree it can’t change real matters on the ground in the short term.

“It may take 100, 200 years. As Israelis, our responsibility is to judge ourselves. We need a self-analysis of what we are doing, not blaming everybody else all the time. That’s not working.”

Volkov is always travelling, but Israel is his real home. Speaking on the phone before a trip to Australia, he explained: “I always see myself as Israeli. And it’s great to live here when you don’t have to work. But on the other hand it’s quite hard to live here. It’s a very strong mix of East and West, but we can’t pretend we live somewhere else — it’s not Paris. Politics are powerful, but music is very much on the outskirts. Financial support for the arts doesn’t come close to the amounts people get in Europe. But the arts have a big meaning here — an edge, an excitement that’s lacking in a lot of European countries.”

He has helped bring some of that excitement to the Israeli musical scene through Levontin 7, a performance venue in Tel Aviv he helped to establish in 2006. “It brings together performers from many countries and in different genres — classical, jazz, electronic, rock. It can influence cultural life here in a way more apparent than conducting. We have our own record label. Culture in Israel is a big mixture and you cannot be elitist about it. You have to be very inclusive.”

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