Donald Runnicles' thrilling Inverness debut

Donald Runnicles
John O'Groat Journal

By Margaret Chrystall

TIME-TRAVELLING through the music of Vienna on Saturday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra did what chief conductor Donald Runnicles had promised and made two familiar "war horses" sound fresh and exciting.

Most of us could hum the tune to the Blue Danube and the three-short-one-long notes that start Beethoven’s Fifth symphony.

But you felt as if you were hearing both works for the first time at Saturday’s concert as the orchestra brought new colour, huge energy and subtlety to each.

The excitement that buzzed from Eden Court’s crowd as they emerged into the cold air after the concert probably couldn’t have been more different to the exhausted crowd escaping after four hours in a frozen Vienna concert hall in 1809 where Beethoven’s Fifth had premiered as part of an overlong programme of many firsts.

It’s hard to even imagine what it must have been like for them to have taken in a night of four new Beehoven premieres (including his Pastoral symphony), an over-packed programme, a false start in one of the pieces – and the sonic tornado of the Fifth amongst it all.

Luckily for Saturday’s Inverness audience, Donald Runnicles had hand-picked a programme of works that contrasted yet also linked with each other to balance each half beautifully.

The Waltz: On The Beautiful Blue Danube – to give the full title – was echoed in the waltz-time of Schubert’s Six German Dances (arranged by Webern) which introduced the Fifth in the second half – mesmerising to watch orchestra leader Laura Samuel dancing the music through her seated but constantly swaying body.

And the grand, heroic exhilaration of the Fifth – begun almost before the crowd had settled after the break – contrasted with the human-sized emotional grieving of the first half’s 1935 Alban Berg Violin Concerto, dedicated to a friend’s daughter – "an Angel" – who died from polio at just 18.

Soloist Julian Rachlin’s performance of the Berg contrasted a sweetness of tone in the quieter passages with the fiery double-stopping and left hand pizzicato at the start of the second movement, though sometimes the violin’s voice was just another in the orchestral storm.

Before the concert, Donald Runnicles spoke of the musical references included in the work, a Corinthian folk song and an extract from Bach’s chorale Es ist genug (it is enough) with its quiet acceptance of death. Both movements are unmistakably sorrowful, the first opening with the violin player ranging his bow across the strings in the sort of slow arpeggio of open strings a total beginner plays as their first notes, echoed by clarinets.

You could hear it fast and demented in the turbulent start to the second movement, then later slow and hypnotic, accepting of the end, on its way.

Those paying close attention might also have noticed that after Rachlin’s emotionally-charged performance of the Berg, rather than relaxing backstage, he had chosen to happily play away at the back of the first violins during the Beethoven!

Before the concert, orchestra director Gavin Reid interviewed Donald Runnicles. The characteristics of the different orchestras Runnicles has worked with came up, and he described his admiration for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

"One week they will be working on Wagner, the next Birtwhistle, the next Cage and the next Schubert and Mahler. They have an ability to switch ‘languages’ I find quite awesome."

Asked about how he had gone about tackling such well-known classics such as The Blue Danube and Beethoven’s Fifth, Runnicles quoted fellow conductor Simon Rattle who had told him when he asked about he tackled a career challenge – "Donald, I just don’t look down!".

Runnicles told the audience he was very aware there were many people who wouldn’t have heard either piece live and had told the orchestra they should be played as if for the first or last time. And also he had said to remember that there would be people whose lives would be changed by what they heard.

From the glittering highlights and pace-changes of the conductor’s take on the Blue Danube to the gutsy, full-on charge of Symphony No 5 – like being hit full in the face by gale-force winds – the conductor’s first visit to Inverness was a benchmark.

The concert – a lesson in how thrilling classical music can be.