Monday 28 April 2008

Here's Runnicles (or Where's Runnicles meets Runnicles)

We've used this title before, for a post six months ago following the glorious announcement that Donald Runnicles was taking over the role of Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from the 2009 season. The more eagle eyed among you will remember that this post caught the attention of Stephen Duffy, the orchestra's marketing manager. Well, another pleasant surprise awaited as I returned from work on Tuesday: Stephen had e-mailed to invite us to the concert Runnicles was giving on Thursday, his first with the orchestra since the announcement. Of course, needless to say I had bought my ticket as far back as last June and unfortunately Finn was unable to attend. Better still:

At the end of the concert, we’re having a “meet and greet” with Donald, the players of the BBC SSO and our audience, It’d be a pleasure to meet you both there, and introduce you to the man himself.

Of course, this sort of situation is intrinsically quite dangerous - the higher the expectations the greater the potential for disappointment. Fortunately though, I don't have to write that kind of a review. Before starting, Runnicles turned to the audience and gave a brief speech, mentioning how good it was to be in this jewel of a concert hall and playing with this jewel of an orchestra. He also drew some parallels between the two works in the programme: MacMillan's 3rd Symphony 'Silence' (receiving its Scottish premier) and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. In particular, he mentioned the importance of silence in both works and both composers' use of textures. This was doubly interesting for me since this is the first time I've heard Runnicles perform a programme: all the previous concerts I have attended have been of single works: Verdi's Requiem, Mahler's 3rd symphony, Bruckner's 6th and Wagner's Gotterdammerung. He mentioned that nobody quite knows why some partnerships between orchestra and conductor work and others don't, but that this one had been special and he looked forward to the future. We couldn't agree more.

I'm not sure I've heard much MacMillan before, and not least for that reason I'm hesitant in passing judgement. Like hearing any work for the first time, well, any that isn't completely awful, I wanted to go back and listen again, it's impossible to take everything in on the first pass. However, MacMillan (and doubtless Runnicles) uses pauses powerfully in the work. There is also at times a wonderful sense of cacophony mixed with order. I know that makes no sense, since the two are essentially opposite, but that is the only way I can describe the sound that several times they managed to produce. And quite something it was. Similarly the several smaller, low, throbbing climaxes in the work. Sonically this work is a showcase for an orchestra, and under Runnicles the BBC Scottish played magnificently. The work has some wonderful textures, which for me highlighted its suitability as a partner to Mahler, whose genius for orchestration is one of his key strengths. Certainly it is an interesting piece, I enjoyed it very much and I will listen to the broadcast. At the same time, I didn't quite feel swept away by it, nor in the presence of greatness as I did with the Ades violin concerto last summer. If I have one reservation, and this is splitting hairs, I have said before many times that one aspect of Runnicles' genius is his gift for instrumental placement (be it the horn in the foyer outside the Grand Circle in the Usher Hall for Mahler 3 or the brass arrayed in every nook and cranny of the Albert Hall for Gotterdammerung and even in the general orchestral layout for Bruckner 6). However, such was the scale of the orchestration that the platform was actually a little crowded and there was no room, so to speak, for his skills in this regard to shine forth. That's not to say there was anything wrong, just nothing to take one's breath away.

Following the interval came the treat. I've waxed lyrical about the 2005 performance of Mahler's 3rd symphony more times than I can count. The more so since my computer died that summer meaning I was unable to capture the broadcast. This is compounded by the absence of Mahler from Runnicles' discography. Orchestrally the performance was superb. Rich and detailed, with some of the finest playing I have yet heard from this orchestra. It was a performance that made me question why on earth this work is so often skipped when a conductor surveys the symphonies because, and let's face it, Das Lied is a symphony in all but name, had it not been for a superstition that, like so many composers before him, he would die after nine, this would surely now be known as Mahler's 9th. Runnicles and the BBC SSO provided a real orchestral tour de force, whether the playing loudly, softly, with passion, fast or slow. He also achieved a wonderful balance with the percussion. Pauses were held to magnificent effect. It was something to hear. Indeed, I am tempted to say that, orchestrally, this is the finest reading of the work I have heard, be it on CD or in the concert hall.

Tenor Simon O'Neill was appearing as a last minute stand-in for an indisposed Johan Botha. His performance should therefore be seen in this context and I will not judge too harshly. However, he did not ride over the orchestra as clearly as I would have liked and, personally, I found his voice to have a slightly harsh, nasal tone. I did wonder for a moment whether Runnicles was to blame, swamping his singer, but Karen Cargill's performance soon put paid to that. Anyone has a difficult job convincing me in this role. I am, like many others, wedded to the Kathleen Ferrier reading (with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic), as I am to Ferrier in so much Mahler. (On a side note, those of a similar disposition will be pleased to know that a release of Mahler 3 featuring her, and conducted by Boult, is soon to appear on Testament. The link is to MDT not Testament only because their website has more detail.) Cargill isn't Ferrier, obviously, who is? And yet, she comes as close at chilling the listener as I have heard (afterwards Runnicles described it as having a direct line to the listener's heart, I can't explain it better).

Runnciles, orchestra and soloists received a rapturous reception. It must be noted that the hall wasn't quite full (as it was for Brendel in February). Quite why was a mystery to me, those who missed this missed a treat.

Afterwards, proceedings adjourned to the bar. I found myself sitting with Andrew Clark (a very nice journalist from the FT, find his review here) and a flute/picalo player from the orchestra. Gavin Reid, the orchestra's Director, interviewed Runnicles briefly. He talked about his formative years in Germany and Austria, and his consequent experience in Viennese repertoire. He had a lovely story about a recent performance of Strauss's Rosenkavalier he had given with the Vienna State Opera, with no rehearsal. So steeped are they in this music that requesting one would be a sure-fire way to never work with them again. In particular he mentioned a their playing of the waltz and how he wished he could have bottled it up to carry around with him.

Reid next asked him about another post he had taken up, in somewhere called Berlin (as the Music Director at Deutsche Oper Berlin). After a brief explanation of the three houses in Berlin (ah, for only one properly funded one in Scotland), he contrasted the main difference between this and SF Opera where he has been for over a decade. SF, the most beautiful city in the world [Edinburgh, surely. Ed.] turns over a large number of new productions meaning that once a run of seven or eight performances is over and everyone is just getting settled, that's it for a good few years. Berlin is a repertory house, so productions come back year after year. Clearly he is looking forward to this.

He then thanked both singers in effusive terms, noting just how proud Scotland should be of its artists. Take note, SNP, if you really want cultural independence, the funding to match is required. He also had a nice story about Rattle attending the Gotterdammerung rehearsals for last year's Proms as he himself was preparing the work for Aix. Indeed, Rattle was apparently so impressed with Cargill that he got on the phone to the festival and demanded they secure her.

He gave very little away about what we might expect from his first season as Chief Conductor. However, he did let slip that he would like to do something from Rosenkavalier (that will certainly get Finn's attention, if nothing else). It sounded more like exerts than a full concert performance, however, given Runnicles' pedigree in the Opera House, might I suggest going down just that path: let us have some full concert operas from the BBC Scottish in the 2009/10 season. He also talked about his commitment to new music: he did, after all, give the American premiere of Messiaen's St Francis (something we're heading to Amsterdam to see staged in June) as well as the world premier of Adams' recent opera Dr Atomic (about Dr Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project). Indeed, he talked about his links to Adams so I suspect we can expect some of his music: how about Dr Atomic in concert, I'm sure Runnicles will conduct it better than whomever brings it to ENO.

I had the chance to have a chat with Stephen Duffy. He again mentioned that they were looking to expand their season into Edinburgh, though the ongoing Usher Hall problems don't help. And even if that were not an issue, the Usher Hall isn't really ideal for them: audiences here are quite conservative and I suspect they'd have a job selling out some of their programmes (though having the local boy conducting would doubtless help). Really, we need a third concert hall in Edinburgh, a brick by brick reconstruction of the City Halls. However, given the current budgetary position, I think it more likely that I will see pigs flying past my window (a feat that would be doubly impressive since it is dark and the curtains are drawn). He talked about some future plans for the orchestra, including a possible performance of Messiaen's Des Canyons aux etoiles. A sublime and spiritual work, magnificently performed at the 2006 Festival by de Leeuw and the Netherlands Youth Orchestra, I sincerely hope this comes to pass.

Stephen then introduced me to the eponymous maestro, who answered the question first posed at the end of this post: he hasn't stumbled across our humble blog. I gave the brief explanation of the name and I think he was a little taken aback. I thanked him for a fine concert and asked him for his autograph (he signed my copy of his recording of Beethoven's 9th symphony on Telarc with the Atlanta Symphony - apparently the surround sound version is interesting, he said they had a lot of fun recording it - which will probably be the next disc to feature in our discography, not least because I don't think I did a very good job explaining to him why I like it so much). Still, if he wants to see some more cogent praise, he has only to click here. I also took the opportunity to praise the horn placement in Mahler's 3rd symphony and thank him for one of the most sublime evenings I've ever spent in the concert hall, something I have wanted to do for nearly three years.

All in all, a fantastic night. The concert is being broadcast on Monday 28th April at 7pm on BBC Radio 3. Those who can get to it, should head to the Albert Hall on Sunday 3rd August where Runnicles, Cargill, Botha and the BBC Scottish will be playing Das Lied again as part of the BBC Proms, only this time paired with Beethoven's first symphony. I can't make it, so the wireless will have to suffice. Beyond that, Runnicles isn't due back to perform in Scotland until 19th February 2009 when he will play Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox, Ravel's concerto for piano left hand and Berlioz's symphony fantastique. In the meantime it's CDs, the radio or expensive air fares (we were recently offered tickets to hear him do Berlioz's Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic in May, sadly the combination of fares and dates couldn't be made to work).

Wednesday 23 April 2008

There's Runnicles - Peter Grimes at the Met

No, the budget of our humble blog hasn't massively expanded to allow a visit to the Big Apple, even to see Donald Runnicles conducting. Fortunately though, the Metropolitan Opera now broadcasts its Live from the Met relay to cinemas as well as via Radio Three. But the price is steep and, at £25, several times what one would pay for a regular cinema ticket (and, indeed, for live opera: you can get into every opera at this year's Edinburgh festival for less, not to mention everything in the current Royal Opera House season). I don't really see how it can have been the technology that was responsible for the price tag (I assumed it was some form of internet streaming, but some Googling informs me that in fact it is a satellite relay). I did baulk somewhat when the announcer informed us that they thanked [some sponsor whose name eludes me] for making the relay possible: I refuse to believe this is not a tidy little earning for the Met. That said, the seats at the Cameo are more comfortable than in any opera house I've been in and the view of the screen was unobstructed. Better still, this seemed to be the hard-core opera audience of Edinburgh: there was no chatting, loud coughing or coming in midway through the act. Somewhat surprisingly, the 200+ seat venue was totally sold out, turning up at the last minute on a whim I was lucky to get in. Whether this is regular, or whether the crowd was bolstered by those wishing to see the local hero, I cannot say.

The picture is in high definition, and suitably impressive. The [I assume] digital projector had no noticeable flicker. Sound was good, but not great. A cinema's system is almost certainly not installed with the audiophile in mind and I think it would be possible to do better, in particular it struggles to resolve the more complex moments; to put it another way, I think the sound quality is finer in my living room. The credits rolled, rather annoyingly and not, as it turned out, to the performance but rather a pre-recorded exert. We then got some 'behind the scenes' presentation and chat from Natalie Dessay, which I could have done without, though she did a creditable job out of her mother tongue. Did we, for example, really need to see [again, I assume] the stage manager as he announced "Calling Maestro Runnicles to the pit."?

The set is imposing: a vast vertical wall that called to mind the 2006 Edinburgh festival production of Troilus and Cressida (whose overly elaborate mechanical wall failed during the interval on the opening night). Doors in it constantly open for people to sing from. At first this seemed a little silly, especially as each witness was called in turn at the inquest. And initially Anthony Dean Griffey's Grimes sounded too nice and sweet a voice. Patricia Racette's Ellen Orford was very fine, and while she may have struggled a little at the top and had more of a wobble than I care for, her acting and characterisation more than compensated. Balstrode (Anthony Michaels-More) and Ned Keene (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) sang and acted particularly well.

The downstage positioning of the wall in the first scene forces the large cast into a small space and makes for an very claustrophobic feel. The costumes are all very dark, except that Grimes seems to have a hint of colour, marking him as an outcast. As the drama progresses, Grimes becomes more and more chilling. Runnicles delivers a thrilling account of the storm into scene 2, as fine a musical depiction of the elements as I have heard since Mackerras conducted Beethoven's 6th symphony at the 2006 festival. Again the set shifts around, this time to create the pub, and again manages it well. The minor performances here, such as Auntie (Jill Grove) are superb. Then comes the round Old Joe has gone fishing which teeters on the brink of chaos, and yet is superbly controlled by Runnicles and chorus master Donald Palumbo.

As the curtain falls we are once more with Dessay, this time back stage as she pounces on Grimes and Orford for a soundbite. I can't imagine they want that, I would think as a singer herself she would know better. Interestingly, it is quite a shock that they are not English, given the quality of their accents while on stage. But Dessay has my sympathy, and amuses the audience, as she struggles to pronounce Aldeburgh while linking to a live relay just outside the cinema there. We are then treated to some archive footage of the Red House, Britten and Pears' home there. Or, at least, the interior shots (and I have been there, so I know) are accurate. The exterior shots were actually of their previous home on the sea front which they left for Red House (which is not, as the presenter suggested, a few minutes walk from the cinema but right on the edge of town).

Runnicles manages the orchestra magnificently for a beautiful dawn to act II. The wall works well as the church, and all the better as the doors close behind leaving Ellen and the young Prentice (Logan William Erickson) on the beach. The windows open to visually remind us of the congregation's presence. There is an eerie sense of voyeurism and curtain-twitching and we feel the weight of the congregation behind the wall. Grimes is grittier here, there is a shock to the violence, such as when he strikes Ellen. The set then pulls back to to give us Grimes' shack. There is a brilliant lighting effect on Grimes' face as he opens the trap door that leads onto the cliff. Runnicles closes, near silently, with chilling effect, managing to prevent premature applause (no mean feat at this house).

In the second interval we get to meet producer John Doyle and set designer Scott Pask. They've come in for criticism, in part as the set doesn't look like Aldeburgh. I've been there many times, and it's quite true, it doesn't. But if the object of every production was to perfectly recreate the town, I think that would be rather dull. We learn that the dark tar-stained look is much more in keeping with Doyle's native Hastings, also a small English fishing village. We then get a couple of trailers, one of which should carry a health warning: Deborah Voight singing Isolde (wild horses would not drag me there). Just before he returns to the stage, Dessay collars the man himself, in particular what it meant to him as a Briton to conduct Britten (which seemed to rub some of the more nationalistic members of the audience up the wrong way).

As act III opens, Mrs Sedley (superbly played by Felicity Palmer) eavesdrops wonderfully. The set then pulls apart to reveal a dark alley from which Grimes, gipped with madness, emerges. Ellen and Balstrode appear in windows above him in a wonderful use of the set which makes you question whether they're really there or only in his mind. I know that's against the text, because it's very clear they are, but somehow the idea they're not makes it the more chilling: Balstrode actually helping Grimes to kill himself never quite works for me. And then, for the close, the set pulls back completely to reveal music and lighting to match the dawn. The blue cyclorama is hugely disconcerting after the darkness of what's come before, it feels as though the town has swept everything away under the rug in a way that leaves a bitter taste. It leaves the viewer troubled, as it should.

It's a production that has been roundly criticised. Wrongly, in my view. It is straight in a world of silliness, it accentuates the key themes of voyeurism and of a community ostracising those who are different. Some reviews have painted a picture of Runnicles struggling valiantly against the horror which at every turn threatens the music. They are mistaken. Let us hope this makes it to a CD or DVD near you soon.

As always in these things, the camera is important, and I didn't always feel that my eyes were allowed to go where my ears were telling them to be. There was an awkward shot they kept doing, turning back from stage to pit, and a not particularly pleasant one that gave us a look up their nostrils (though, in part, this may have been forced upon them by the position of the set). I found the sub-titles both unnecessary and a little distracting. There was the odd picture drop-out, but the sound always remain.

All in all it was a positive experience. I'm very glad to have seen Grimes and to have seen in under the baton of Runnicles was a real treat. The cinema experience comes impressively close to capturing the live experience, but in other measures it is works away. There's an extra measure of excitement missing. And, enjoyable though it is, it would have to be something pretty special for me to pony up another £25. Let's hope Maestro Runnicles is paged to the pit next season.

The loud cheers that greeted Donald Runnicles superb performance were given a civilised echo in the Cameo.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Where, oh where, is Runnicles?

But the danger was past, they hand landed at last

With their boxes, portmanteaus and bags

It's P-Day. Or, rather, it has been. Today has been that day of days, hour of hours, the day of the release of the Edinburgh International Festival programme (download here). A nice simple day, were it not for the fact that my family has decided just at this moment to be spread across four locations, in three countries and two continents and time zones and booking must be co-ordinated between them all, and done as soon as possible. So, it fell to your author to take his day off to do so. And now, at last, it is done, we have landed at last.

I didn't quote the next two lines from Carol's Hunting of the Snark because it would have been a little harsh, the view does not consist of "chasms and crags" and the crew is perfectly happy with the view. Certainly this does not appear to be a vintage year in the mode of 2006 or 2003, but it seems that the longer lead time and sounder financial footing has enabled Mills to put together a stronger programme for 2008. Last year there were two glaring omissions: Mackerras and Runnicles and today (or rather during the months of planing leading up to today) was his chance to correct these errors. Sadly he scores only 50%.

But I don't want to start with the negatives, so we'll lead off with praising the return of one of the world's great conductors: Sir Charles Mackerras. He comes back in partnership with the SCO and pianist Alfred Brendel as he continues his tour prior to retiring. I had hoped we might get the 9th Mozart piano concerto, with which he is ending his career in Vienna this December (again with Mackerras), as well as playing with the Philharmonia in October. We are getting the 24th instead. It's a fine work, but not one of my favourites. We also get Mozart's 40th symphony and Dvorak's 8th. These tickets will go fast. As will Brendel's solo recital the next day, August 20th, which includes Schubert's D960 sonata. I can testify to the brilliance of this concert, indeed I could right a review right now, as I heard Brendel play the exact same programme in February (the review will be posted here at some point).

The opera looks stronger too. There is a visit with two productions from Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera. They are bringing both Szymanowski's King Roger and Shchedrin's The Enchanted Wanderer as well as a concert performance of Rachmaninov's Aleko and Act III of Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko. There is also the opening concert: Kurt Weill's The City of Mahagonny and after its absence last year, Scottish Opera returns with Smetana's The Two Widows (though given their current state, it's an open question how fine it will be). Indeed, this could be said to be the Gergiev international festival since we are also getting three concerts with the LSO where he conducts all seven of Prokofiev's symphonies.

Organist Naji Hakim comes to play some Messiaen and some of his own compositions in St Giles Cathedral, while the composer's anniversary is also celebrated by Volkov and the BBC Scottish with his final work Eclairs sur l'au-dela as well as Thomas Ades' recent composition Tevot. Not bad, but not a patch on the celebration of composer taking place at the South Bank Centre presently.

For my money, the first real orchestral highlight comes on August 14th. After his blistering performance of Bruckner's first symphony two years ago, I have no intention of missing Sakari Oramo's return with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which will include some Janacek and Sibelius's first symphony. John Eliot Gardiner brings his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique for some Brahms (including the German Requiem), though my brother's reports indicate that his work with the composer is so dull as to not be very worth hearing.

Gustav Dudamel (who hasn't impressed me nearly as much as he has others) returns but with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, so it will be interested to see how he fairs without his gimmick. Similarly, the Budapest Festival Orchestra return for a residence of about the same size as their rather disappointing one in 2006. I wonder if I'm alone in finding their partnership with Fischer to be massively overrated? Certainly I almost choked on my wine as Mills gave an effusive eulogy to them during the programme launch (at the same time as mentioning neither Mackerras, Brendel nor Runnicles).

Emmanuelle Haim joins the SCO for Handel's Israel in Egypt but my brother reports she has insufficient oomph with the composer. More promisingly, after his stunning efforts with Poulenc last year, Stephane Deneve returns with the RSNO for Honegger's Le Roi David. The excellent Dresden Staatskapelle are coming, though with conductor Fabio Luisi, or whom I've never heard, and with rather more Strauss than I would prefer.

It's worth noting that there is not much Beethoven and not the ghost of a Mahler symphony, though you could argue that this is simply a reflection that areas over visited by McMaster are being put into the shade for a while. And while, for me, that means an absence of some favourites, I am compelled to admit that it is really no bad thing.

The morning Queen's Hall chamber series looks a little below its usual standard for the second year running - might this have something to do with the fact that they seem, carelessly, to have lost the Bank of Scotland's sponsorship? The Belcea Quartet is coming to play all Bartok's quarters (though I think I might prefer a more varied programme and their recent recording of the works was much less compelling than they have been in other repertoire). There is also an appearance by the Beaux Arts Trio and another by Mischa Maisky.

What of the drama. Well, I'm not really qualified to comment, though some of it looked quite interesting from the video Mills showed. It seems to be the area where his post Berlin Wall theme of Artists Without Borders resonates most strongly. There are productions from Palestine, the former Yugoslavia and all manner of other locations requiring supertitles. There is also David Harrower's 365: One Night to Learn a Lifetime whose challenging play Blackbird was a great success a couple of years ago. There is some interesting looking ballet and dance, but once more far outside my field of expertise. The Steve Reich evening looks particularly noteworthy.

But, I started this post, in its very title, with a complaint, and I have yet to make it. When we first established this blog the name was selected, in part for poetic reasons, somehow Where's Runnicles sounds better than Where's Gardiner, partly because he's a local, but in large part because we wanted to make a tongue in cheek dig at his omission. Not least because last year was at short notice, hampered by unbalance books and it has since been announced that he will take over at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra from whom he gets a finer sound than anyone, I had hoped that Mills would correct this oversight and our name would become an anachronism. That he has not done so is puzzling to say the least. On the off chance that he's reading this: GET RUNNICLES BACK NEXT YEAR. It's really quite simple. The rest of us will just have to hope he appears at the Proms and that the date is doable.

I don't want to seem overly negative, though. Overall, I feel very positive about this year's festival and the event's future.