Saturday 21 February 2009

Runnicles Speaks

Sadly, only in a pre-concert talk with the director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Gavin Reid, rather than an exclusive interview (ah, but a man can dream); speaking of which, Michael Tumulty and The Herald, land just that catch. Still, mustn't grumble: it was fascinating nonetheless.

Last time, the equivalent discussion took place after the performance, moving it earlier had the bonus of being able to give us insights to listen for in the works we were about to hear. Reid began by asking about Runnicles' forthcoming departure from San Francisco Opera, where he has been since 1992 (that's sixteen seasons, for those who want to count, or a very long time for everyone else). His departure will be marked by a production of La Traviata, featuring Netrebko, and a concert performance of of Verdi's Requiem, the mention of which sparked an excited murmur: perhaps I am not alone in my fond memories of Runnicles' performance at the 2005 Festival with the BBCSSO (if only the BBC would broadcast that again).

We then got into the topic of his preparation of works. In part this stemmed from a comparison between working on a programme such as that evening's with an orchestra and preparing an opera in Berlin (a few days as opposed to several weeks). Runnicles learns every opera from the piano score first. This seems to stem from his first experiences with learning Wagner scores on his parents' piano which was, as he noted, a far from ideal substitute for the orchestra. He has an extensive collection of Wagner scores, including copies of Wagner's autograph of Tristan which, he noted, has surprisingly few corrections; it is so good that you can conduct from it.

Tristan, it seems, is very much on his mind, since immediately after playing these two concerts with the BBC Scottish he is jetting off to Dresden to conduct it. At the last minute as well. Apparently Daniele Gatti fell ill, leading to a call on Monday, just after he'd arrived in Edinburgh, asking him if he would be able to conduct the performance on Sunday, then again on the following Wednesday and Sunday. And with no rehearsal. He won't arrive in Dresden until Saturday, and you don't want to be straining your singers the day before, though he will be meeting with them. However, he knows all the singers involved and, as his recording attests, is intimate with the score. Even so, it strikes me as a daunting undertaking.

This then led to some discussion of the concert and its programme and, particularly, the works of John Adams. As he made clear, one of the advantages of working on the music of living composers is that you can actually get their input and ask them questions when preparing a score. Indeed, Adams doesn't just hand over the score but, owing to today's computer wizardry, a CD containing an electronic orchestra illustrating it. His music is, apparently, a lot harder to conduct that it sounds. Indeed, Runnicles will go to visit Adams in his studio to look over a score and get comments along the lines of "this is difficult" or "I want to hear you do this". But his operas appear to be as rewarding to conduct as they are to watch: as he said, it's good to have subject matter that is relevant.

Runnicles, of course, conducted the premiere of Dr. Atomic a few years ago in San Francisco, which tells the story Robert Oppenheimer, who lead the Manhattan project which build the atom bomb. It's a challenging work, which I saw in the cinema last autumn in a live relay from the Met (though which I never got round to reviewing). That production is about to open at ENO, and I'll be there to see it in a couple of weeks time. I wish we had Runnicles for that, and given he suggested it was one of the most difficult things he's done, it will be even more interesting to see what they make of it. From the sounds of it, the SF production was better. Runnicles described a powerful moment in the finale: as the work counts down to the test detonation the chorus look out into the auditorium, towards where the explosion is to take place. The whole thing is bathed in bright light in a manner that calls to mind the close of Messiaen's St Francis. Being able to see both the cast and audience in this manner seems to have been a profound experience.

Adams, of course, is no stranger to controversy, perhaps most notably with The Death of Klinghoffer, and Runnicles mentioned a cancelled production in Boston; even the 2005 Edinburgh festival production didn't escape protest. And yet, he also has a playful side that comes out in his titles: Dr. Atomic is evocative of comic books and then are the likes of his Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

But Adams isn't the only American composer with whom Runnicles is familiar. However, the others mentioned were all unknown to me. They form part of the Atlanta School of composers, so called for having been nurtured by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Orchestra, and to whom Adams is something of a Godfather (well, not the Godfather, said Runnicles, rather the Al Pacino character). Their music is quite accessible and interestingly, two of the recent compositions he mentioned were both percussion concerti, and had been performed by compatriot Evelyn Glennie. I love a good percussion concerto, not least for the sheer visual spectacle, so that would be something to have on the programme. Certainly, it sounds like the Atlanta School will feature next year. Aside from that, we were offered no other glimpses of what is to come; we shall have to wait until the launch of next season's programme in April, to which the orchestra have kindly invited me, to find out.

One last thing he mentioned sticks in my mind. Runnicles talked about how pianists were often opera buffs, and that the evening's soloist (Golka) was no exception. He then described, how, to his mind, the most magical pianism soared over the orchestra as does a singer.

It was an illuminating conversation, all too brief due to the nagging need to get on stage with, as I've already noted, excellent results.

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