Interview: Donald Runnicles - Conducting electricity

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IT IS more than 30 years since a former Edinburgh choirboy named Donald Runnicles left the capital to pursue a life in music on the world stage. Now a leading international conductor, veteran of orchestras, and particularly operas, from New York to Salzburg, he returns to the Usher Hall tomorrow night, where he sang as a schoolboy 1965.

Although this should be a moment of triumph – his first appearance in the capital as head of one of Scotland's leading orchestras – he is wondering what kind of reception awaits him.

"You ask what it is like to be coming back? I'm bewildered," the 54-year-old conductor said when we spoke on Thursday, hours before he was due to take the stage in Glasgow.

The newly appointed chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – which he counts as one of the finest in the world – was clearly disappointed that the orchestra has been struggling to sell a third of the seats at tomorrow's performance.

When international musicians hear he's playing the newly refurbished Usher Hall, he said, they are always jealous of its "phenomenal acoustics". But he, like others, is uncertain what the city is doing to embrace the venue and the top-rate classical music it hosts. "I would be very sad if we put all this work into this, and 400 people are sitting there," he said. "We've done all we can, and now it's up to Edinburgh."

While his roots are Scottish, his "cultural home" is in Germany, where he moved to from Edinburgh and first worked as a professional musician.

It's also a place where classical music is at the heart of urban life. Freiburg, a city of about 220,000 people where he was once Generalmusikdirector, has the South West German Radio Orchestra, a state orchestra, and a chamber orchestra, he said, "and these concerts are full. I don't believe it's the population base, it's the role that classical music should be playing."

Runnicles was born in Edinburgh and studied music at school and university in the city. He sang in the Usher Hall as an 11-year-old schoolboy, in the inaugural concert of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Next week, he takes the chorus to Glasgow with the SSO, their first trip away in several years.

"I never knew a home without music," he said. His father William, who died in 2000, was a director of a furniture supplier in George Street, but also the organist and choirmaster at Christ Church in Morningside. "He wasn't in music professionally, but all the evenings were spent planning services: he'd be at the piano; he'd be listening to music at home."

Runnicles started singing and playing piano, aged about seven. "Initially, it was very much singing in the church choir, experiencing my father in front of that church choir," he said.

It was his mother, Christine, who kept a sometimes unwilling schoolboy practising – while his elder sister, Margaret, who went on to teach music at Fettes School, was held up as an example. "She played the piano from an early age, she was always dangled in front of me."

Runnicles's father moved him from George Heriot's School to George Watson's College to take advantage of its music department. There, his teacher, Richard Telferd, had a "huge influence", especially with his connections to Scottish Opera and its founder, Sir Alexander Gibson. When Runnicles was 16 and on a trip to Glasgow, he saw Das Rheingold, the first part of Wagner's Ring Cycle. "And the world erupted", he recalled.

A year earlier, Runnicles had already begun deputising for his father as church organist and he was soon dabbling in conducting at Watson's. "It was a concert at an old folk's home and they wanted to bring a few musicians together. It needed somebody at least to wave a hand or two," he said. "That's how it started, that's where I first got up in front of musicians and did some conducting." At Edinburgh University, Runnicles initially focused on piano. Realising that "I had neither the talent nor the disposition" to be a concert pianist, he took up horn, because "I loved being in the orchestra, I wanted to know what it felt like in the orchestra in order to be able to conduct."

He moved on to Cambridge, and then the London Operatic Centre. From there, he went to Germany for his first opera job as a singer's coach and assistant conductor in Mannheim. He became music director in Freiburg in 1989, and in 1992 the director and principal conductor of the San Francisco Opera. Like any international conductor, his work extends far beyond a single steady job. Other appearances ranged from New York's Metropolitan Opera to being guest conductor for the Atlanta Symphony.

In 2001, at the Edinburgh International Festival, then-director Sir Brian McMaster first brought Runnicles together with the BBC SSO, playing Berlioz's Les Troyens. That concert was billed as the start of a musical romance – one that even the most rank amateur could see at work at the concert in Glasgow City Halls on Thursday.

As he took the orchestra through Beethoven's and Mahler's first symphonies, Runnicles' podium style ranged from teasing the music out with his fingertips – almost blowing kisses at his players – to holding on like the helmsman of a wildly tossing ship. Mahler's tumultuous Symphony No 1, in particular, seemed to show a conductor totally at home with his orchestra.

Runnicles' return to Scotland has generated the kind of headlines and television coverage that orchestras love, but he came back to Europe for two jobs. This summer, he also started as Generalmusikdirector of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He has eight weeks of SSO concerts a year, excluding festival, Proms, or touring appearances, and expects to spend ten or 11 weeks of the year in Scotland, but will be based in Germany.

"Home is where my children are, and home is very much for that reason San Francisco. My girls are still in school there, my family is there," he said. "We will eventually, in probably a year or 18 months, move to Berlin as a family." His elder daughter is about to get married in Germany; the two younger ones are very much American.

"In terms of cultural home, I hope nobody will take this amiss, but I was drawn from the outset to Germany and Austria because of the repertoire, because of the place that opera and symphony plays in the everyday life of any moderately-sized German town or larger cities. That's where I started, and I was a 23-year-old when I went over."

That being said, he pays tribute to the music scene in Edinburgh – and in particular the depth of amateur music – as the place that made him. "I owe Edinburgh. I owe the cultural scene a great deal. Without that, then I would not be doing what I'm doing now. I've found an orchestra with whom I have a wonderful time making music, and it happens to be here in Scotland. There is a real sense of giving back what Scotland gave me in this initial very thorough training in music. I come back and fall in love with the city all over again," he said.

"When you grow up in a place you take so much for granted. One of my favourite haunts is walking on the Pentlands and getting off the bus at The Steading, which is also a favourite watering hole. As a boy, I played golf up there."

But it is his experiences in Germany that heighten his concern about Edinburgh audiences. This weekend, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the BBC SSO all perform in the Usher Hall. But as of Thursday night, even as the SSO's Glasgow concert was broadcast on BBC2 Scotland, ticket sales for Sunday night were only edging 500 in a venue that can seat more than 1,800. Fears about a weakening classical music audience are hardly new, nor confined to Scotland. But Runnicles' comments reflect a wider concern about how Edinburgh is selling, and celebrating, the revamped Usher Hall.

Four BBC SSO concerts promising "great music-making" are now scheduled for Edinburgh this season. "That's our part of the bargain. What we are offering Edinburgh is something very special, to have the SCO, the RSNO, the BBC SSO, really at the height of their powers, appearing in Edinburgh.

"I think we are doing as much as we can. I would like to see, quite frankly, Edinburgh the city, the cultural scene, doing more to make it clear to audiences in Edinburgh that important things, innovative, exciting things are also happening on the classical music scene outwith the Edinburgh Festival. It's a phenomenally beautiful city with a phenomenal hall.

"Who are we talking to in that dialogue? Who fields that responsibility or accountability? What Edinburgh has done for the world, its intellectual history, its cultural history, it should be a no-brainer, and yet we are fighting, we are fighting."

&#149 Donald Runnicles was born in Edinburgh in 1954, the son of a choirmaster and organist.

&#149 After attending school and university in the capital, he began his working life as a conductor in Mannheim, Germany.

&#149 In 1992, after twice conducting Wagner's Ring Cycle at the San Francisco Opera, he became music director, conducting 350 performances.

&#149 After 17 years there, he recently became director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

&#149 He remains music director of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming and principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

&#149 Married, with three daughters, he was made an OBE in 2004 and has an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh.

&#149 Runnicles took up his post last month as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Tim Davie, the BBC's director of audio and music, was in Glasgow to watch his inaugural concert as BBC SSO director.

He said: "Having someone who is a Scotsman by birth, after going on an international journey to choose to come back to the BBC SSO and make that choice, it's a big statement.

"Classical music needs people like Donald to come in and create news and bring people in.

"Creatively, we are going to see a landmark period for the orchestra."


The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concentrates its concerts in Glasgow, with 15 this season in its Thursday-night series at the City Halls. However, four concerts will be held in Edinburgh this year, all at the Usher Hall.

&#149 SUNDAY: Runnicles conducts Beethoven's Symphony No 1, Berg's Seven Early Songs and Mahler's Symphony No 1 Titan.

&#149 SUNDAY, 29 NOVEMBER: the orchestra performs music from the BBC series, A History of Scotland, hosted by Neil Oliver.

&#149 SUNDAY, 13 DECEMBER: the BBC SSO plays in Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide To The Orchestra.

&#149 SUNDAY, 21 MARCH: Runnicles conducts and Christine Brewer sings music by Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Beethoven's Symphony No 7.

&#149 Ticket information: 0131-228 1155 or

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