Ilan Volkov rehearses The Arab Apocalypse at Aix Festival. Photo: Ruth Walz (detail) View full image

The art of programming

Ilan Volkov explains the thought processes that go into creating programmes that excite audiences, and the importance of discovery, location and risk


My ideas about programming are always evolving. I don’t think there is a moment when one can say, ‘Ah, now programmes are done well.’ In any art, you’re always trying to find the balance between different elements, and I try to do that in my conducting life, although it’s not something one can always achieve.

With Tectonics and my other projects, I look for openings in the repertoire. Music has so many different traditions, heritages, genres and geographies to offer. It’s important to bring these into the orchestral world and present intensely diverse programmes and ideas. We need to get outside the boxes that are given to us when we start. I enjoy working with the great known European composers and I do so often, but it’s also great to connect with people who write less often for orchestra. It’s about understanding the history of music that we don’t yet know, which is waiting to be discovered. If we accept the recognised canon, we close it off, but if we search for new, old or unknown information, we expand our vision.


‘The ideal programme is one that makes something suddenly bubble up, so that people feel a new intensity that maybe they haven’t known before’


The ideal programme is one that makes something suddenly bubble up, so that people feel a new intensity that maybe they haven’t known before. That can come from the way that the content is presented, or it can come from one small piece that turns the whole concept upside down.

Programming should also be sensitive to location. When I work somewhere I like to perform music that is special to that place. I’m more interested in doing that than trying to programme a well-known piece and forcing it to sound new. Of course, when I perform Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms, I have my own way of thinking of it and I listen to how the orchestra plays it and we find a new way together, but that’s not the only interesting thing one can do as a conductor.


‘Sometimes people need an outside hand to help them see the obvious. We often look far away and ignore what’s next to us’


For example, I was recently talking with a promoter about a project in Prague and said, ‘Do you know this Czech composer who lives in such-and-such place?’, and they didn’t. That’s already a beginning, a connection to a place that’s been lost for some reason, whether through immigration or history. You start a discussion, coming with your own ideas and knowledge, and work out how they can fit the place. Sometimes people need an outside hand to help them see the obvious. We often look far away and ignore what’s next to us.

Sometimes, a conductor is just a picture – they come in, hit the net and do the job very well. That’s fine, but they can also be more influential in the discussion about what music actually is. They can be a curator – if the orchestra and management allow them to be. That’s when an audience leaves the concert, thinking, ‘Oh, I didn’t think about this before, I didn’t see that connection.’ Discovery is something we do on a normal basis when we go to art galleries and I try to create that in concert halls as well.

The work of a conductor is very varied – as well as conducting, you manage programmes and work with festivals and tours, with soloists, singers, choirs. There are so many changeable and interesting things to collaborate on – millions of ways to create new things with organisations. It’s an endless puzzle.


‘You have to take risks in order to find an ideal. It’s like love’


Sometimes you have good ideas and sometimes they fail, but you have to take risks in order to find an ideal. It’s like love – you may take steps in the wrong direction in order to test the ground. A concert might fail, but it can also excite listeners much more than a recording and hit them in surprising ways.

Some orchestras play safe because they are under the pressure of selling tickets, which is fine, and as a conductor, you have to fit your ideas to the place and the time. You can’t come and say, ‘This is what I do and I do this everywhere.’ That doesn’t work.


‘We need to be very positive, believe in what we do and have faith in the players and the audience. That creates the positive space for listening’


As musicians, we offer an opportunity for people to go deep inside themselves, which most of us don’t do on a regular basis in daily life. We need to be very positive, believe in what we do and have faith in the players and the audience. That creates the positive space for listening. This sounds a bit metaphysical, but in the end, it’s practical. We have to try to allow it to happen and if even a small percentage of the audience achieve this Nirvana, it’s enough.

We have to create an atmosphere that is welcoming to any audience member, whatever their social background, geography or beliefs – a warm, supportive space that can lead to this expansion of the mind. What we present is an experience, and not necessarily didactic teaching. You can find knowledge online and learn from teachers. Knowledge is nice, but it’s not what concerts are for. Music is about experience, not understanding – these are two different things. One problem is that audiences think they need to understand everything. They are used to watching TV, where there is usually a clear narrative. Their fear is misplaced.


‘Children find it easier to hear Ligeti or Boulez than Mozart, because it’s more accessible to them’


We must also give people opportunities when they’re young. If you experience something positive when you’re a kid, it stays with you. Children find it easier to hear Ligeti or Boulez than Mozart, because it’s more accessible to them. They don’t necessarily relate to music from the times of historic kings and queens. But many musicians think that modern music is awful, so they don’t want to teach it and are afraid of playing it for kids. They play Mozart and Bach, and the children are just bored. We need to put our heads together to make sure that music is given to everybody and that we don’t put it in a museum and then expect people who don’t know anything about it to understand it.


Ilan Volkov conducts the world premiere of Samir Odeh-Tamimi's The Arab Apocalypse at Aix Festival on 4 and 5 July. In August he conducts a programme of Beethoven and the world premiere of George Lewis's Minds in Flux at the BBC Proms, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.