The Volmer Decade

With Arvo Volmer’s final concerts in November as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, it is time to consider how enormously far the orchestra has come during his decade-long tenure.

With Arvo Volmer’s final concerts in November as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, it is time to consider how enormously far the orchestra has come during his decade-long tenure.

His leadership has seen the ASO improve out of all proportion and enter an unprecedented period of ascendancy. Elegant but impassioned, his conducting unfailingly comes to the heart of the music, and under his baton the ASO can seemingly do no wrong. When a panel of 15 judges ranked it second place among Australia’s six major symphony orchestras in Limelight magazine in March, few could have been surprised. But what do the players themselves think of Volmer? Concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto says: “Our relationship with Arvo is special and extremely positive, which is quite rare with orchestras these days. He’s got us under a spell. When he comes here everybody is so happy; you can see it on their faces and it reflects in their playing. When you have such a good rapport, everybody wants to play well.” Before rehearsals even begin, she says he meets with her to think up ideas about bowing and phrasing, which she is then able to pass onto the rest of the strings: “It’s a process no other conductor does, and I really enjoy it. It enables me to understand him better and arrive closer to his understanding.” Some conductors have a reputation for over-rehearsing orchestras, but not so Volmer. Yoshimoto says, “He is very creative and free in concerts. We know it will be completely different the second night, which is great but scary. He trusts us to know that we will be with him, so sometimes he might rehearse one way and it comes out another way in concert. But it is about having the option there, of having the choice of going left or right. To me this is what makes him so inspiring.” Geoffrey Collins, principal flute, says it was Volmer’s interpretative clarity that struck him from the outset. “It is startling and distinctive. One thing he does even in the most complex music, such as Strauss’s Salome, is to create overall large shapes out of the complexity. Other conductors can get mired down in detail. Maybe he gets that from his experience in opera – he’s a fantastic opera conductor. But it will be a hard act to follow”. On the podium, Collins says, Volmer exudes “tremendous confidence but never arrogance”, and his performances “are always extremely driven while combining richness of humanity and humour”. Working with him has been “a joyful experience,” Collins adds. “Playing leading lines for Arvo is never prescriptive. He encourages individuality and has been generous with his time with us, which is not the case with a lot of other chief conductors. We’ve been a bit spoilt”. Double bassist Belinda Kendall-Smith singles out as one of Volmer’s major strengths his empathy. “The bottom line,” she says, “is that in a conductor you must have a complete musician. Technically they must be able to produce good results, which means having an extremely clear beat and being able to take charge. But more than that they need to have great empathy with the orchestra and the music. This is fundamental to achieving great results, and Arvo has this. With Geoffrey Tate in the (1998) Ring there was the same sort of respect and generosity, which elicited the orchestra’s best. To have Arvo conducting Sibelius or the Estonian composers he knows so well is like he has a particular insight into their works. For the Mahler Cycle, it was like he was channelling Mahler.” “In temperament,” observes Kendall- Smith, “Arvo is incredibly emotive when he’s in full flight. Salome was incredibly emotional for him and the orchestra was on a big high in that opera. Other conductors work at a lower level and the passion is not there”. Many younger ASO players have only known the orchestra during Volmer’s tenure but have nevertheless witnessed its ascendancy under his leadership. One is Lachlan Bramble, associate principal second violin. “It is not uncommon,” he says, “for orchestras and conductors to not get on, and we’ll sorely miss him. You can’t put any conductor with any orchestra and expect it to work. The special relationship we have with Arvo is that he allows the freedom for musicians to be musicians. Part of his music-making philosophy is that he’ll craft a performance but leave some of the details up to the individual. One of the things I really enjoy is his spontaneity. He allows himself to live in the moment and every performance is unique. That is incredibly thrilling.” Luckily for the orchestra, Volmer has agreed to stay on as principal guest conductor and artistic advisor, with two annual return visits until at least 2015. The players agree this will make the transition to appointing a new chief conductor much smoother than last time. Says Bramble: “I don’t think we’ll lose the connection with Arvo. If anything, I think we’ll look forward to his visits even more”. Arvo Volmer conducts the ASO in Masters 12 with pianist Steven Osborne from November 7 – 9, and Sibelius with violinist Sophie Rowell on Wednesday, November 13. aso.com.au

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