Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Jerusalem

Maestro Ilan Volkov

Following its annual intensive residential summer workshop, the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performed two concerts of orchestral works. The conductor was Ilan Volkov. This writer attended the concert at the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre July 20th 2012.

The Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is Israel’s national youth symphony orchestra. Working in cooperation with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, it is one of the Jerusalem Music Centre’s most prestigious projects. Consisting of some 80 players aged 14 to 18 who hail from all parts of Israel, most of them recipients of America-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarships, the young people are coached by leading Israeli- and guest musicians and rehearse under the baton of top conductors. The YIPO convenes twice a year, giving the young musicians extensive training in the playing of orchestral music. The YIPO functions thanks to its many friends and supporters. Hed Sella, executive director of the Jerusalem Music Centre, greeted the audience with a few words about the YIPO and about the people and organizations who have made it a reality.

Born in Israel in 1976, Ilan Volkov has been conducting since his early teens. He was chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from 2003 to 2009 (the youngest person to hold the position with a BBC orchestra); he is currently its principal guest conductor. Volkov’s international career includes conducting orchestra concerts and opera. He is also one of the guiding forces behind Levontin 7 (Tel Aviv), a performance venue that brings together differing musical genres, including classical music, jazz, electronic music and rock.

The concert opened with Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Carnival Overture opus 92, the composer’s most successful concert overture; Dvořák conducted its premiere as part of a farewell concert in 1892 in Prague, prior to his departure for America. This piece forms the middle panel of a triptych of three overtures titled “Nature, Love and Life”, the three overtures being linked by a motto theme representing nature. The “Carnival Overture” was inspired by the composer’s childhood memories of village celebrations. Volkov and his players brought to life the exuberance of Bohemian dance rhythms and the music’s dazzling brilliance; they handled the work’s swift mood swings with precision. A lush pastoral interlude was evoked by horn, flute, clarinet and solo violin and tinted with the subtle use of tambourine.

Next on the program was Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” – composed in 1960 and based on the 1957 musical drama borne of the composer’s collaboration with choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The nine movements of the 1960 work recreate many of the story’s episodes and songs, presenting several of its wonderful melodies; the signature motif of an ascending tritone followed by an ascending minor second, from the opening of the song “Maria” constitutes a central motif running throughout the work, the same three notes also forming its final nostalgic chord. The auditorium was alive with youthful energy as the YIPO players presented Bernstein’s supreme orchestration of moods, timbres and contrasts; the young musicians reveled in the work’s many and varied elements – its jazzy off-centre rhythms, its intricate counterpoint and intense textures – as they made poignant references to the work’s unforgettable song melodies. I was hoping the young players were aware of the story of “West Side Story”, that of ‘two teenage gangs – the warring Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled Americans’, in Bernstein’s words. The YIPO players’ vibrant approach, their finger-snapping, whistles and cries created busy street scenes; they floated melodies with breezy lightness and gave articulacy to the strands of the fugue. In an uninterrupted sequence, the pieces communicating the tension of the musical story and the frenetic pace and troubled social aspects of America of the 1950s, Volkov and his players provided an exciting musical canvas.

Having labored over his first symphony for two decades, Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) writing of Symphony no.2 unfolded naturally and rapidly, its premiere taking place barely a year after it was begun. The composer’s stay in the mountainous countryside around the village of Pörtschach am Wörthersee in the Austrian Alps, a haven of tranquility conducive to composing, inspired him to write a very different symphony from its predecessor, the second described by his friend Theodor Billroth as ‘all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine and cool green shadows’. Although not entirely devoid of the sadness ever pervading the composer’s soul, the symphony has sometimes been referred to as Brahms’ ‘Pastoral Symphony’. The YIPO infused the sweeping melodies of the opening Allegro non troppo with mellow, expressive richness, the stronger of the strands never sounding course, the gentler lines bright and soaring, the horn solo of the coda a precious, Brahmsian moment. In the Adagio non troppo movement, with Brahms’ darker side somewhat present, there were nice opportunities to enjoy the fine playing of the YIPO’s ‘cello section, timpani, trombones and tuba, with the following lilting major-minor Allegretto gracioso graced by fine woodwind playing. Volkov took his players through the highly contrapuntal course of the final movement with much skill, its moods, painted in vivid orchestral timbres, ranging from gloom to exuberance.

The concert was a festive event, attracting a wide range of concert-goers, including many families with children. The program’s orchestral fare was well chosen both in terms of young taste, challenges and also in the opportunities it offered all players to be heard. Volkov’s work is always inspiring; the YIPO players, under his direction, produced a concert of the highest quality.

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