‘It’s in my bones’

Donald Runnicles
Financial Times

It was a debut of sorts. Donald Runnicles had been appointed principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and their recent performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde in Glasgow was the first fruit of the new partnership.

But this was more than just a debut, more than a statement of intent, because the result had the impact of a quake, an epiphany. Mahler's symphony for tenor and mezzo, often dubbed his 10th, sounded anything but the valedictory statement of a dying composer - the conventional interpretation. In Runnicles' hands it came across as a passionate affirmation of life.

It was moving, of course. There were even moments of profundity. In the passages for harp and celesta you could detect a childlike serenity. But there was something ecstatic about it too. It was as if the very essence of life was being squeezed out of music that acknowledges the boundaries of our earthly existence.

London's concertgoers will be able to judge for themselves on Sunday when Runnicles brings the BBCSSO to the Proms for a repeat performance. Whether or not you go along with the Scottish conductor's broad-brush interpretative style, you will find it hard to resist his physical embrace of the music and the obvious rapport he has built with the Glasgow-based orchestra.

Runnicles, 53, is no musical philosopher and does not seek to "explain" Mahler's music. In conversation the day after his Glasgow performance, he simply compares it to the embryonic image that brings Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey to a close. "Is it a child? Is it a planet? The end or the beginning? It's the circle of life, trying to explain why we are here, what it is all about. And that's what Das Lied is about."

Life has indeed come full circle for Runnicles. The son of an Edinburgh organist and choirmaster, he has spent most of his professional career outside the UK, cutting his teeth in German opera houses before being appointed San Francisco Opera's music director in 1992. That signalled not just the start of a flourishing US career but also a love affair with the American way of life - evidenced in Runnicles' country-and-western-style appearance (the Stetson, the ageing mane of hair) and development of a summer music festival, the Grand Teton, amid the spectacular landscape of Wyoming.

Despite a handful of sensationally good Wagner concerts in London, he remains little known in Britain - an impression that should change in coming years as his work with the BBCSSO develops. But the Scottish job is only one part of a strategy that tilts the balance of Runnicles' career back to Europe. In 2009, at the same time as he formally succeeds Ilan Volkov in Glasgow, he will become Generalmusikdirektor at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. The two posts are complementary, allowing Runnicles to balance his symphonic and operatic work in much the same way he has done in the US.

Some commentators have questioned the wisdom of his decision to move to Berlin, where competition between the city's three opera houses is fierce and political controversy is never far from the door. Others argue that he has undersold himself by taking a regional BBC orchestra.

Runnicles will have none of it. "I've gone with my gut. Maybe it's part of my Scottish heritage: you're never given a reason by your peers to believe you're anything special. I'm not in a rush. It's so easy to sign that Faustian bargain with the [music] profession. I may not have gone with the conventional wisdom - ‘Why am I not with the Chicago or Pittsburgh Symphony?', ‘How does this look on my résumé?'. Success and prestige are not a matter of appearing in a recognised or obvious place. I stand on this cusp - it feels like a continental shift - and I'm exactly where I want to be."

There's no doubting Runnicles' status as an international heavyweight. The man who first conducted at the Metropolitan Opera 20 years ago and made an early Bayreuth debut thrives in music that requires the generalissimo treatment - wielding big forces and big scores into coherent statements of sound. Wagner has long been top of Runnicles' list - a throwback to boyhood when he heard Alexander Gibson conducting Scottish Opera's Ring. But there's also an improvisatory quality to Runnicles' personality, nurtured as a young répétiteur at the Mannheim Opera, where he would be called upon to conduct performances without rehearsal.

The US had its influence too. He didn't get to grips with Haydn and Mozart until his spell as principal conductor of the Orchestra of St Luke's in New York, and his San Francisco credits include several world premieres, notably John Adams' Doctor Atomic. The BBCSSO's audiences can expect to hear more of Adams under Runnicles' baton; Aaron Jay Kernis and Jennifer Higdon are the other American composers he wants to champion. "It's not that I'm good at everything", says Runnicles when I throw him the legendary George Szell's mantra about specialising in not being a specialist. "But if you have ambitions to mould an orchestra, you have to do it across a broad repertoire."

Despite his return to the UK, Runnicles has just started a new Ring in San Francisco, a commitment that will last three years. Two of his three children live there, and his Grand Teton festival will continue to provide him with a "working holiday" every July.

Talking to Runnicles, you get the impression that teamwork has always counted for more than power or prestige. And it was the crumbling of that sense of teamwork at the San Francisco Opera that prompted his return to Europe. When David Gockley replaced Pamela Rosenberg, a long-time Runnicles ally, as general director 18 months ago, the balance of power within the company shifted. Runnicles praises Gockley for promoting a new Ring but describes his style of leadership as "old-fashioned. For David there is one man in charge. He does not embrace the partnership to which I aspire and in which I can thrive".

Berlin and Glasgow, by contrast, offered carte blanche. "If the rapport is there, they're willing to do anything and everything for you. I've come to this [BBC] orchestra not because it's Scottish but because it's a great orchestra. In Berlin, putting on an opera is about being at piano rehearsals, talking to directors, identifying singers, sitting down with lighting designers. It's in my bones."

Runnicles has come home - and already America's loss looks like Europe's gain.

Donald Runnicles conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on August 3