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Donald Runnicles interview: The return of the prodigal son

THERE was no underestimating the powerful symbolism on display at last week's launch of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2009-10 season. On the platform with SSO director Gavin Reid sat the two men who will spearhead the immediate future of the orchestra. Together they represent one of the most exciting artistic partnerships in Scottish music for many years.

On one side, 33-year-old Ilan Volkov – in the process of shifting seamlessly from his role as chief conductor to that of principal guest conductor – exuded the typically cool, intellectual panache that has shaped much of his adventurous six years with the orchestra so far. "I've now got the easy job," he joked.

The comment brought a wry fatherly smile from the man sitting next to him, his successor, 54-year-old Edinburgh-born Donald Runnicles, whose decision last year to accept the SSO supremo post represents nothing less than a glorious coup for Scotland and the SSO.

Runnicles is a big fish in the global pond. He takes on his new role after 17 years as musical director of the mighty San Francisco Opera, where he recently premiered the latest new opera – Doctor Atomic – by his great friend John Adams, and where he will continue to guest conduct.

But in addition to his new SSO directorship, he is soon to assume overall musical control of the prestigious Deutsches Oper Berlin as its general music director, as well as maintaining his guest conductorship of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The anticipation of his overdue return to Scotland – astonishingly his first-ever official post with a British orchestra – cannot be underestimated. He probably loathes being tagged a "prodigal son", but there's some truth to the allegory.

Not so much in terms of his personal life. Over recent years, Runnicles has used his sporadic conducting dates in Scotland – primarily with the SSO at the Edinburgh Festival – to visit his mother and sister in Edinburgh. Nothing changes there – he was noticeably late for a City Halls morning rehearsal last week due to traffic diversions on the M8. Edinburgh still has a magnetic pull on the burly Scot.

The great news is that Edinburgh music lovers are about to benefit from that, albeit in a brief burst. For central to Gavin Reid's unveiling of Runnicles' first season was the unexpected news that two major concerts will take place in the Usher Hall. This is not traditional territory for the Glasgow-based orchestra, other than its regular August appearances at the Festival. But both concerts have all the ingredients of something no-one can afford to miss.

Both take place on Sunday evenings. The first, in October, features the first symphonies of both Mahler and Beethoven, separated by Alban Berg's deliciously post-Mahlerian Seven Early Songs, for which Runnicles is joined by Heidi Melton, a soprano he has worked with in San Francisco. No need to introduce the soprano of his second Edinburgh concert, Christine Brewer, who sings a golden selection of Richard Strauss' songs in the company of music from Wagner's Tannhuser and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

"We simply couldn't run a first season with Donald and not capitalise on his Edinburgh following," says Reid, hopeful the orchestra might have a future role in the newly-reopened Usher Hall. But that depends on genuine audience support in a city well known for the fickleness of its concert-goers – a trait that even the globetrotting Runnicles knows too well.

"Edinburgh would have no problem getting the best orchestras to come here any time of the year; it's creating the audiences for them that is the challenge," he says. "Whenever I work with the likes of the Cleveland or Philadelphia orchestras, or the Berlin Phil or the Vienna Phil, you have no idea how often the players talk to me about Edinburgh and the Usher Hall. It is hallowed ground for them; these great musicians go bleary eyed about its fantastic atmosphere and acoustics."

Of course, Runnicles and the SSO are only dipping their toes in the Edinburgh waters next season. The main SSO action continues over in the west (with significant presence, too, in Aberdeen), where the explosive Runnicles-Volkov partnership will spearhead the band's growing popularity at its City Halls home.

Audiences are significantly up for the regular Thursday night series, according to Reid, and the programmes remain boldly complementary to the other Glasgow orchestral series. Runnicles – besides such trusty Germanic repertoire as Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, Mahler's Fourth and Wagner's Siegfried Idyll – conducts a complete version of Ravel's Daphnis et Chlo with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. "The score lies permanently open in my home. Its orchestral riches never cease to amaze me", he says.

He also plays a part in the SSO's wider celebrations of James MacMillan's 50th birthday year, conducting a performance of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. "He's one of the finest composers alive," Runnicles argues. "I introduced his Third Symphony to Atlanta, then brought it to Scotland." But why such an old MacMillan work, when it's already in this year's Edinburgh Festival programme? "It's simply one of his best pieces, and one I haven't done before." There will, however, also be a BBC Radio 3 composer portrait of MacMillan in the Old Fruitmarket, and the Scottish premiere in Aberdeen of a new orchestral suite extracted from his latest opera, The Sacrifice.

Reid also announced complete cycles of Rachmaninov's symphonies and Martinu's piano concertos (part of an integral Bohemianres mini series), and a major 75th birthday celebration of Peter Maxwell Davies, including a concert performance of his opera Taverner under Martyn Brabbins, and a brand new work conducted – alongside Sibelius's Symphony No 7 – by Volkov. No shortage of star soloists either, with appearances by pianist Garrick Olsen, violinist James Ehnes, Scots soprano Lisa Milne and Ayrshire-born Nicola Benedetti.

But all eyes will be Runnicles' return to his native shores. The "Big Yin's" back – he's even got the wild flowing follicles to warrant the Connolly comparison. Will Edinburgh re-adopt its conquering hero? It's about time we all did.

 
 
 

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