Volkov takes orchestral music into visionary and uncharted territory

Ilan Volkov's Tectonics festival is now in its fourth year
Ilan Volkov's Tectonics festival is now in its fourth year
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At a recent BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert, I witnessed an interval contretemps between a cool-headed SSO employee and an irate member of the audience, the latter bemoaning “the absolute rubbish” he had just endured, which happened to be an exciting new piece by the emerging young Scots composer Thomas Harrold and a concerto from the ever-creative pen of South Korean composer Unsuk Chin.

“I’ve been coming to these concerts for 23 years,” the complainant wailed, no doubt drawn that evening by the second-half Tchaikovsky that was about to even up the repertoire balance. I’m not sure what his point was, given the SSO is the most active Scottish orchestra in championing new music – a fact well-publicised in its programme brochures – besides which, the orchestra has only been resident at the City Halls for a decade.

The incident pointed to the age-old dilemma, though: whether orchestras have the right or the responsibility to inflict modern repertoire’s discordance on a paying audience, or whether such “specialised” taste ought to be confined to ghettoised programming.

Think back to Musica Nova, an internationally-acclaimed festival of new music involving the RSNO, that shoved everything “unpleasant” into a confined space in off-season September, but floundered and disappeared in the early 1990s when diminished funding led to prioritised cutbacks. Bums on seats would always win the day unless, like the BBC, you have the luxury, through its Radio 3 tie-up, to “educate the nation”.

The live programming of new music is still a sticky issue. Sure, fewer concert-goers are now scared of what a James MacMillan or Sally Beamish might throw at them, partly because such music is more familiar to us and might be considered mainstream by comparison to today’s avant-garde. So we find it regularly in seasonal programming.

But there remain occasions where there is wisdom in directing the right people to the right programme, and not alienating those who may come merrily along expecting a good tune to whistle on the last bus home. Our complainant, of course, should really have done his homework and checked what he was coming to hear.

Tectonics is one of these events that work best in their own hallowed space. The brainchild of BBC SSO principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov, this annual festival, now in its fourth year, features the orchestra, or more precisely its multi-faceted home and state-of-the-art facilities at the City Halls, as host to a two-day programme, on 7 and 8 May, that takes music into visionary, often uncharted territory. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and it has a faithful and sizeable following.

Volkov’s vision in creating Tectonics – now effectively a franchise that he transplants around the world, most recently to Adelaide – was “to have a place where I can present music that is interesting to me, and which you can’t really present in a standard concert hall”. I travelled to the Iceland version a couple of years ago, and it’s fascinating to see how each is tailored to the venue and respective culture.

The audience is encouraged to move from one performing space to the next, a kind of symphonic conga, so that in Glasgow an orchestral performance in the main auditorium can segue immediately into a kinetic installation in the Recital Room, then to a multi-genre concoction in the cobbled utilitarianism of the Old Fruitmarket.

The result is an intellectual menagerie that is compelling and intellectually challenging, but hard to collectively define.

This year’s event features 80-year-old pianist John Tilbury premiering Howard Skempton’s piano concerto and in a commission from Michael Pisaro. There are many other commissions, from the likes of Laurence Crane to Wolf Eyes founder Nat Young’s first ever orchestral collaboration. Boundaries of musical genre are actively discouraged.

This year’s theme is environmental. Anna Lockwood’s installation, A Sound Map of the Housatonic River, is borne out her strong interest in interpreting the natural world through her chosen medium of kinetic art. Pisaro’s Fields Have Ears, like musique concrète “uses a huge number of field recordings”, Volkov explains.

Jane Dickson’s Labyrinthine, Tectonics’ first opera, explores female identity. In short, it’s a programme that asks searching questions about the future of music and its presentation. It’s not about the past. So don’t come expecting Tchaikovsky.

Tectonics is at the City Halls, Glasgow, 7-8 May, www.tectonicsfestival.com