Energy Conductor: Volkov Sparkles With NSO

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 29, 2006

One of the most exciting developments in music today is the arrival of a new generation of promising conductors in their twenties and early thirties. The past two decades saw the meteoric rise of young artists such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Simon Rattle and Franz Welser-Moest; today Daniel Harding of Britain, Mikko Franck of Finland and Gustavo Dudamel of Venezuela storm the podium.

Now add Ilan Volkov to that list.

Last evening at the Kennedy Center, the 30-year-old Israeli led the National Symphony Orchestra in a blazing concert of the music of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, as well as of an American premiere. Volkov elicited musicmaking of clarity, sparkle and thrust that spoke of a fiery spirit and an acute, if still developing, musical intelligence.

Volkov, who in 2003 became the youngest-ever music director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Glasgow, has the feel for music's dramatic gestures and form. Last night, he deployed clear directions that accentuated the music's nuances, while keeping attuned to the broader sweep of the score. If his conducting sometimes lacked expressive depth, that quality will surely come into focus as he gains experience.

Like others in the new crop of conductors, Volkov is dedicated to contemporary music, and he carried with him a new commission of Jonathan Harvey, the resident composer of his Scottish home orchestra. Harvey has created a sophisticated yet beguiling score in ". . . Towards a Pure Land." This abstrusely titled piece refers to a kind of Buddhist version of the Elysian Fields where all is peace and calm. The music, which begins with gentle, tremulous playing of a small group of string instruments that the composer dubs the "Ensemble of Eternal Sound," radiated a gentle glow. The orchestra used precise timbres and secure intonation to render a lucid account, building from these soft beginnings to more strident blocks of sound.

The renowned virtuoso Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40. This concerto lacks some of the broad-breathed themes that make Rachmaninoff's other concertos more consistent crowd-pleasers. Yet jazzy touches and songful tunes can still engage a listener, especially in a performance as energetically rendered as this one was.

Bronfman's playing went from the percussive to the lyrical, fluently adjusting rhythm and color to suit the moment. This commanding pianist brought out a colossal sound that sacrificed nothing in shape and accent. At times, orchestra and soloist seemed to trade off lightning bolts, bringing out huge swells of sound.

In Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60, Volkov took a cooler stance, giving an account that favored calibrated precision over passion. The opening bars had an especially mysterious element that contrasted beautifully with all the flowing themes that followed. Volkov seemed content to highlight the music's construction in the second movement; the ensuing Scherzo had a suitably rustic air; and the finale left a glittering trail of curlicue figures and climactic outbursts.

Volkov, Bronfman and the NSO do it all again tonight and tomorrow evening, when the concert repeats.

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