It is pleasing to report that Gavin Reid (the orchestra's director) hammered the final nails into to the coffin of the complaint that gave us our name as he launched the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2009/10 season. Donald Runnicles will conduct five programmes with the orchestra (one third of the season) in his new role as Principal Conductor and, best of all, two of them will take place in Edinburgh, at the reopened Usher Hall (we hope - nobody I spoke to at the event seemed any more confident than me that the contractors would meet their obligations in time for the Festival). Before anyone asks, and prior to getting down to the business of what's actually on next season, I'll clear up one thing: a name change won't be fourthcoming - there's the expense of getting a new address and everyone would have to update all their links, plus, we rather like the name. However, it does go from being a tongue in cheek complaint to pointing out an embarrassment of riches (as well as the compliment it's always been).
The concert that first won me over to Runnicles, as I've mentioned many times before, was a magical reading of Mahler's third symphony at the 2005 Edinburgh festival. It's immensely pleasing, therefore, to see Mahler featuring heavily this year. The season opens with the first symphony, which Runnicles twins with the first of Beethoven (he described the two composers as cornerstones, a sentiment I very much agree with, and suggested that the two firsts were an excellent way to start the new relationship). This first concert is repeated in Edinburgh too. And for those further afield, all is not lost: the concert is going out on BBC 2 Scotland (and thence iPlayer); at least, I assume so, the press release gives a date six days before the concert. Selected performances will also be filmed for online distribution. A week later he is back with Mozart's K503 concerto, a piece by MacMillan and the Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe (complete). This last features the first performance of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus outside Edinburgh since 1991. Indeed, Runnicles, back in 1965, sang with them in the performance they were assembled for: a reading of Mahler's eighth symphony (he was in the boys choir back then). The Ravel is apparently a score that he often keeps open in his San Francisco home, an inspiration, and one which he feels contains great orchestration. Apparently this is one of the earliest ideas he had for programming with the orchestra, and he was insistent that only the complete version would do.
However, even we must concede, it is not all about Runnicles. Volkov, while stepping down as Principal Conductor, becomes Principal Guest. He leaves a compelling legacy: when totting up the premieres he has amassed in seven years, they stopped counting at forty-one. Runnicles emphasised that he wanted a project based approach, rather than some kind of my repertoire/your repertoire division of labour (I seem to remember him speaking in similar terms about his relationship with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra). Volkov, jokingly, saw it slightly differently: "Less responsibility; more fun.". He emphasised how glad he is to be continuing his relationship with the orchestra, and their recording relationship with Hyperion. His first appearance, in October, features four works, including a Maxwell Davies world premiere, Beethoven's fourth concerto and Sibelius seven. He said he liked such programmes, not least for the challenge to the orchestra of preparing four works in three days. Later in the season he brings Dvorak's Legends and Janacek's Sinfonietta (featuring, I'm informed, no fewer than fourteen trumpets, which ought to raise the ceiling, I don't recall Mackerras using that many with the Philharmonia). There is a strong Czech theme to the season (wanting only Charles Mackerras), as the orchestra perform all of Martinu's piano concerti and Dvorak's final three symphonies (as well as The Golden Spinning Wheel, perhaps my favourite of his tone poems.
In 2010 Runnicles returns for a programme that couples Bruckner's eighth symphony, a work he described as very dear to his heart, with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, which we know he can conduct well from his Dresden recording. His answer to Reid's speculation as to whether it might pack the hall was a simple one: yes. Then in March he is joined by long time collaborator (the pair first worked together ten or eleven years ago in Mozart, and he has since fostered her career as she has developed into Wagner and Strauss, only a knee injury kept her from singing Brunnhilde at the Met recently). Their concert includes Tannhauser exerts and Strauss songs, with Beethoven's seventh in the second half. Last time we met noticed Runnicles and this work, it was when he was an audience member for Mackerras and the SCO; I wonder how their performances will compare. This is the second concert that gets an Edinburgh repeat; however, I must note with considerable distress that the post concert coda, wherein Runnicles, at the piano, accompanies Brewer, is available only for the Glasgow leg. His final visit of the season, in late March, compliments the first, closing with Mahler's fourth symphony. Soprano Ji Young Yang, whose name is not familiar to me, is on hand. The first half features Britten's violin concerto. The only thing that could make it more perfect would be if Rachel Barton Pine was the soloist (the evening's one regret is that it seals the knowledge that we won't hear her in Edinburgh this year - please, to any orchestra managers who may be reading this, book her for 2010/11, I don't want to have to rename the site Where's Barton Pine, it doesn't have quite the same ring to it).
There's more, much more, of course (including Rachmaninov's symphonies and Shostakovich ten), and as soon as the programme is up on their website, I'll post a link to it. I'm told the introductory film will also be put up, it is notable for the high regard everyone seems genuinely to have for each other. As Runnicles remarked, coming mainly from an opera theatre background, it's obvious, and perceptible to the audience, when there really is a team based approach and everyone shares a common vision.
It was noted that ticket sales have risen by one third in the three seasons since the move to City Halls. This is a testament to what a fine venue it is (how I wish we had a replica in Edinburgh): there is a reason Mackerras now makes his SCO recordings there. But it is also a testament to this fine orchestra and the interesting programmes they've produced. The 2009/10 effort is particularly compelling (and not just because of our obvious preferences), hopefully it will allow them to buck the trend in difficult financial times. It's only a shame they have to do their concerts on the same night as the SCO....
Runnicles assured me there will be more Mahler. Sadly, he would elaborate no further. He has just done Mahler six in Atlanta, using, he told me, a tree stump for the hammer blows. I wouldn't be surprised if we had that here before too long. I also asked him briefly about the time he devotes to considering orchestral placement (such as that off-stage horn in Mahler three, or the bells in Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique). He said that was part of the fun of it: I wish more conductors so obviously felt that way.
Now if only I'd remembered to ask someone when the Berlioz is due for broadcast.
Update - 28/4/09
Season information, along with the introductory video, can be found here along with the brochures for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen (although I wish the BBC SSO hadn't also gone in for this trend of overly elaborate online brochures, which require a login to download - I'm sure I'm not alone when I say please, just give me a PDF).
Update II - 28/4/09
I'm informed the broadcast of the Mahler concert will be on 8th October, live on BBC2 Scotland.