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Excellent Chemistry: Donald Runnicles, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s recently appointed Chief Conductor talks about his plans to Simon Thompson (ST)

Donald Runnicles - Picture © John Wood

What is going right with music in Scotland at the minute? I can’t remember a time when it has been so good to be a music lover north of the border. We have new venues and refurbished old ones, together with a rejuvenated national opera company, and our national orchestras are in exciting hands: Robin Ticciati has recently become chief conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Stephane Denève has recently announced that he is to extend his tenure in charge of the RSNO. To what can we attribute this recent resurgence? Well in a recent interview on Radio 3 (Music Matters, 6th March 2009) Michael Tumelty, chief music writer of the Herald laid the responsibility for this at the door of one man: Donald Runnicles. The Edinburgh-born maestro and internationally renowned musician (he currently holds posts with the San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, not to mention his frequent appearances in Vienna and elsewhere) has recently returned to Scotland to take up a post as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It is to say the least unusual that Scotland should bag such a current musical megastar and Runnicles’ appointment has indeed turned heads across the world of the Scottish arts: Tumelty contends that his appointment inspired other institutions to raise their game considerably. Be that as it may, his “return” to Scotland has certainly aroused some interest.

When I spoke to him in early March from his office at the Deutsche Oper, I recalled that my first encounter with Runnicles had been during a pair of extraordinary evenings in August 2001 when he conducted a concert performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens (an evening he recalled as “a fairly momentous occasion”). This was also his first time conducting the BBCSSO. I began by asking him if he had felt this to be some sort of turning point in his relationship with the BBCSSO or, indeed, with Scotland as a whole. “I wouldn’t say it was a turning point. Certainly as a conductor you’re never really quite sure how the chemistry will work within the orchestra and I’m delighted to say the chemistry was excellent, and I looked forward then to hopefully working more regularly with them. But that sort of repertoire certainly wasn’t their ‘meat and potatoes’ and experiencing how magnificently they rose to the challenge made me realise that this was an orchestra with which I would have hoped to have a relationship.”

He is dismissive of any “return to Scotland” for its own sake, however. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to return to Scotland: it was when I was approached by Gavin Reid [General Manager of the BBCSSO] and was asked whether I would be interested in being principal conductor that I gave it serious thought. It’s not because it was in Scotland: it was an orchestra with which I had had terrific concerts. However Scotland is a great country to make music in. It boasts a number of terrific orchestras, not least of which is the BBC Scottish, and I’m thrilled to be working with them on this regular basis.”

Picture © John Wood

So just what is it that makes the BBC Scottish such a great orchestra to work with? “They have a terrific spirit. Everybody gives their utmost. It has been to the brink in terms of its survival as an orchestra (thankfully that’s no longer in question) and they came through remarkably, and so much stronger. It has given the orchestra new passion, new curiosity, and a really great spirit; besides the fact that they are all terrific musicians.”

Runnicles took over as Chief Conductor from Ilan Volkov, a young conductor on his way up. Runnicles is certainly not that, but he is very complimentary about his predecessor’s work and stresses the fact that the orchestra and its artists work as a team that is always developing and evolving. “Working together with Ilan and with Andrew Manze [their new Associate Guest Conductor], our bases in terms of repertoire are covered. Between us we cover a great deal of styles and that’s a testament to the wide spectrum which the BBC Scottish embraces in its concert life. It’s a team with great depth. I don’t feel that I’m taking the orchestra in a new direction: I think I’m continuing the work Ilan began, amplifying it and adding areas of repertoire that I have concentrated on in my career that are not necessarily in his yet. We’re also continuing on the really tremendous work that Osmo Vänska did: his legacy is still very much to be heard.”

It’s not surprising, then, that when I ask him about how he goes about taking over at a new institution he stresses the collaborative aspect of building on previous strengths. “You observe, you listen, you get to know the people with whom you are working as best you can, and as a leader you are always most interested in bringing out the best in everyone and for everyone to feel that they own the great music making that we all aspire to. Successful organisations are about successful teams. I’m not a person who imposes: my authority lies in my experience and my work and I would hope that there is a working atmosphere that is as conducive as possible to getting the best results.”

That’s as true with an orchestra as it is with the big opera companies, despite the many different cogs in the wheel required to produce an opera: “With an orchestra my focus is more purely on the players whereas in the opera pit you have so many more strands to weave into a cohesive whole.”

He looks back on his first season so far with the BBC Scottish with a thrill: “I love working with the orchestra and I love working at Glasgow City Halls. We have a great team and as I get to know the orchestra more so the relationship deepens. I look forward to every rehearsal, every concert where we get the chance to make music.” I ask him specifically about his concert coming up next week : the orchestra plays the overture and Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and Christine Brewer joins them for Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Runnicles has had some famous collaborations with Brewer in the past and I ask him what makes Brewer such a great partner. “She is a conductor’s dream,” he enthuses. “She has a glorious voice but she sings quite orchestrally: she is an instrument. When she works with orchestras she fits right into the orchestral tapestry. She sings as one strand, though a phenomenally important one. She’s no-nonsense, down to earth and a delight to work with, and of course she has a phenomenally beautiful voice. She’s a consummate musical partner.” The diversity of Runnicles’ range (the following week he conducts Webern, Britten and Mahler) show that this core Germanic repertoire is only one of his passions. However it is still an area in which he carries considerable authority: “I’m very much at home in that sound-world and I like to pass on to the orchestra some of the knowledge that I have acquired working in Germany and Vienna when it comes to sounds and style. Of course Wagner wrote very little symphonic music in its literal sense, but his music was a phenomenal watershed in musical history and while it was predominantly for the opera house it had a profound impact on absolutely everything. Nothing remained unaffected by the musical tsunami he released and my work in the opera house certainly informs my work in the concert hall when it comes to the likes of Bruckner and Mahler.”

Famous as he is around the world for his opera work, however, Runnicles has few plans for opera here in the UK, outside of concert performances. “It’s purely a matter of time. I don’t have the time to commit to new opera projects, and that’s not just in Britain but generally speaking.” When I ask him how he manages to divide his time between his various projects he admits, “It’s complicated! I try to find a balance and have, if you like, residencies with the various organisations I work with. My commitment to the Deutsche Oper is sure to increase as our relationship continues: soon I’ll probably be spending about 5 months of the year in Berlin and Berlin will become more like home. I’m doing less and less guest conducting simply because of the time it requires. It was as a guest conductor that I came to Atlanta, to Berlin, to Scotland, and those have all developed into very meaningful relationships where I now have positions with these organisations. When you add up the commitments it leave very little time for guest conducting, two weeks at the most per year. Ultimately I have to bring the strands together so that I am strongest and most energetic for when I need to be: when I am conducting rehearsals and concerts.”

He is completely clear about his highest priority, though: his family. Runnicles still calls San Francisco home: he lives there with his partner and two of his daughters (the third lives in Germany) and he is at his warmest when he talks about them. “With all of the various hats that I wear I never wish to sound glib about the focus that I have on my family and trying to make all of this work. I miss them greatly when I travel, but the internet and our various social networking tools mean that it’s a lot easier than it was a few years ago. I have a glorious life for which I am very grateful.”

And what of the future? When I ask him what he would like to have achieved when he ultimately looks back on his tenure with the BBC Scottish he laughs, “I have no idea! That’s a question for the audiences. I don’t think about that yet: I’m really only just beginning. I’ll continue to give of my best, but the result is for others to adjudicate. The jury is out on what we will have achieved.”

So far, the initial soundings are very good indeed.

Simon Thompson

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