'This feels right' - Ryan Wigglesworth named as BBC SSO's next chief conductor

When he takes up the post of chief conductor with the BBC SSO in September, Ryan Wigglesworth will be the first composer to direct the orchestra since its founder Ian Whyte – and he has big plans for the Glasgow-based ensemble. Interview by Ken Walton
Ryan Wigglesworth at City Halls, Glasgow PIC: BBC / Gordon BurnistonRyan Wigglesworth at City Halls, Glasgow PIC: BBC / Gordon Burniston
Ryan Wigglesworth at City Halls, Glasgow PIC: BBC / Gordon Burniston

I asked the question several weeks ago: what was going on at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra? Thomas Dausgaard’s six-year tenure as chief conductor, following continued call-offs and his sudden resignation from his other key post in Seattle, appeared to be disintegrating before our eyes. Would we ever see him again before his contract ends in August? The answer remains moot.

The SSO, meantime, has moved swiftly with some definitive news. Dausgaard’s successor is to be the 41-year-old British conductor, composer and pianist Ryan Wigglesworth. He will assume his new role in September, in time to conduct the opening concert of the orchestra’s 2022-23 season.

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He’s no stranger to the SSO, having guest-conducted on several occasions over the past ten years, covering repertoire as varied as Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, Carter and Knussen. Last year, he oversaw the orchestra’s first public appearance since the start of the pandemic, performing Elgar’s First Symphony.

He’ll be back this Sunday to conduct a celebratory BBC Centenary concert featuring his own Five Waltzes, and again in May as soloist/director in a Mozart piano concerto and to premiere a new work by SSO artist-in-residence Jörg Widmann.

So, by the summer we should have a reasonable idea of how the multi-talented Wigglesworth and SSO are likely to get on. Current perceptions are that player morale is sitting fairly low in relation to the Dausgaard experience, and that Wigglesworth will be a more stabilising influence. But what will he bring that is invigorating and exciting to a post held previously by such luminaries as Osmo Vänskä, Ilan Volkov and Sir Donald Runnicles?

For Wigglesworth, there is the sheer novelty of holding a chief conductorship for the very fist time. His musical journey to this point has been steady and systematic, with his multiple specialisms gradually converging to a point of comfortable coexistence.

After initial training as a cathedral chorister in his native Sheffield, Wigglesworth won an organ scholarship to Oxford where composition and the means to perform his works (conducting fellow student ensembles) soon took precedence. Composer residences with the Cleveland Orchestra, Grafenegg Festival and English National Opera followed, resulting in his first opera, The Winter’s Tale. From 2015 to 2018 he was principal guest conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, where he remains as artist-in-association. He has guest conducted many of Europe’s leading orchestras.

Now he feels the time is right to take on the top job with a major orchestra. “It excites me hugely,” he says. “I suppose having the diverse career I’ve had, when it came to thinking about a chief conductorship – and I’ve been offered several – it had to be a place I could achieve the sort of projects that interest me. The SSO is uniquely versatile in the sheer range of music it is confronted with. This feels right.”

Wigglesworth is the first composer to direct the SSO since its founder Ian Whyte. “My approach to conducting stems from being, first and foremost, a composer,” he explains. “I can only ever approach a work from that perspective: how the composer has put things together, how they did this or that. The flip side applies, too. By conducting the works of great composers, I’m learning how to be a better composer myself. I’ve never really separated the two.”

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Add to that Wigglesworth’s experience as a concert pianist. “Directing a Mozart concerto from the piano immediately gives you a different relationship with the players,” he says. “It’s just chamber music, based absolutely on trust and listening intently to each other. It’s something I think we should do regularly.”

This has been a surprisingly swift announcement by the BBC SSO, with little information yet on the exact repertoire we can expect from its chief conductor-elect. Wigglesworth aims to cover all bases. “With an orchestra like the SSO, as comfortable in Mozart as in music written only yesterday, what’s interesting is how we use that to develop a unique personality together, how we build a kind of telepathy over time.” That will be music to so many people’s ears.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducts the BBC SSO on 13 February and 5 May, both at Glasgow City Halls, www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

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