I'm sitting in row J of the stalls, in the Usher Hall, one seat in from the aisle in the left hand block. In truth, though, I could be sitting anywhere because the auditorium is all but deserted, but then concert doesn't start for a few more hours. From the stage above, the rich textures of Richard Strauss's songs are emanating from the instruments of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I'm not watching them though, instead, my head is buried in my notebook as I jot down a few witty comments the maestro has just made.
Suddenly there is there a loud crash. Nothing has gone wrong. The instruments continue to play, but Donald Runnicles has leapt down from the stage and is now strolling past me, up the aisle, to get a proper idea of how Christine Brewer's voice is balancing throughout the hall. It has to be just right and the Usher Hall has a very different acoustic to the equally wonderful City Halls or Music Hall in Aberdeen where they have already performed this programme.
The episode is preceded by the exchange I was noting. Runnicles had remarked to the effect he wished Brewer could hear herself in the auditorium. This in turn led him to recount the faint praise a conductor can give to a singer who has not performed well:
Fabulous isn't the wordI've never heard it sung like that
And, of course, the one that's brought these to mind:
You should have been in the audience
Of course, he quickly assures Brewer that none would ever apply to her. Certainly they wouldn't. Still, it is remarkable to watch them play, following the leader in the absence of the conductor. Had I taken it, it might have been a perfect Where's Runnicles? picture. Some might, at this point, wonder whether this means a conductor is utterly superfluous, given how fine they still sounded. Not so.
A few Sundays ago, I had the privilege of first watching Runnicles rehearse with Brewer and the orchestra, then of talking to him (the interview is available here, as our first podcast). By the time they've reached the Usher Hall, having done the programme twice already, the rehearsal is little more than fine tuning. So much so that the start time has been pushed back from four to five. So, as the instruments trickle onto the stage, and we're treated to highlights of Mahler fanfares from the brass, I meet the other person who's here waiting for things to start.
Jessica Cottis fulfils a role that you possibly didn't know existed and, even if you've heard the term assistant conductor, may not be aware what it entails (unless you read this recent profile in The Herald). Nonetheless, it's vital. In some ways it is the first step on the ladder, just as Harding once assisted Abbado, Ticciati once assisted Rattle and Runnicles once assisted Solti. Yet, it is not just about learning. Throughout the rehearsal she plays a key role with Runnicles repeatedly turning to her, asking how the balance is and adjusting where necessary - she is his ears in the auditorium (he can't constantly jump down from the podium). But that's not all: she tells me that she's been tinkering with the orchestration of the horns for Wagner's Prelude and Venusberg Music from Tannhauser at Runnicles' behest; in the opera they would be off-stage and the balance, muted on the first night, hasn't seemed quite right.
Her post is part of a fascinating collaboration between the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, doubtless fostered by the fact that Runnicles has now joined their board. She is their first graduate conducting fellow. Aside from assisting Runnilces - and not just with the BBCSSO, she got to go to Berlin for his performance of Brahms' Deutsche Requiem in December and will do so again for the run up, but alas not the performance, she has to be back to conduct a concert, of the Ring in April, on which Where's Runnicles will report fully. She was also involved in directing the offstage action in the Academy's recent and successful War and Peace. And then there's the masterclasses, which she tells me the orchestra found particularly insightful in terms of how much they learnt about Runnicles. She is, it seems, one to watch.
Runnicles enters, the stage littered with instrument cases and handbags, like the rest of the orchestra he is casually dressed, takes a seat on the podium and begins with the Wagner, taking it from the top (the horns certainly sound different than they did in Glasgow). As they play on, it all sounds fine. Yet, he pulls them up to pick over this little moment or tighten that. Particular interesting is the role of the leader: at various points, such as here fine tuning these triplets, Marcia Crayford, guesting for Elizabeth Layton, will translate Runnicles' requests into bowings, fingerings or other guidance for the strings. They resume, but a little later he is asking them not to speed up in their excitement at the big tune. And as to the tune itself, "Dum, da, da, da" he sings out, to illustrate. Then we're onto the Venusberg Music which should sound like the "flickering of flames" (well, "the lickering of flame" he says first, but then nobody, not even Runnicles is perfect).
Brewer then joins them. Actually, we have already had a taste, as her voice has been just audible amid the Wagner as she warmed up somewhere backstage (calling to mind that moment in the 2004 Festival performance of Mozart's Prague symphony where Brendel could be heard practising for the 12th concerto that he was about to play - prompting James Waters so dash out from his seat in the stalls). As they go through the songs, tweaking them, Runnicles turns to Cottis more often to check how it's sounding; as she explained to me earlier, incredible though the voice, and its ability to carry, is, it still makes all the difference to ensure that the support is just right. "Di - da, da, da, dum", Runnicles sings again. Crayford translates this into vibrato and they try it again. He turns back for another glance at Cottis - all is well and they can move on.
An hour has flown by, and there's only a little time to tinker with Beethoven 7. Then again, it's sounding so good that hardly matters. Yet even now there is room for improvement. The balance of the brass in the third movement isn't quite right. Runnicles inquires whether they can move back. They cannot - the structure supporting the percussion is the way and it seems to be scaffolding and rather permanent. Can they move up and to the right, into the places vacated by the extra brass not needed for this classical era work? They can and do. They play again, and, after a few bars: "and you can stay there!"
The closest he comes to scolding the orchestra is when he chides them for a "slightly democratic moment" in Aberdeen. Otherwise he is unfailingly polite and comparatively softly spoken, albeit with his back to me, his words aren't always audible. The atmosphere is relaxed and there is no shortage of smiles; and yet, at the same time, this is a disciplined and professional ensemble.
Thanks for all your hard work. And please, enjoy the concert.
Where, according to the orchestra's regular leader, Elizabeth Layton:
he takes off his clothes and jumps in with us
Metaphorically of course, I'm assuming, unless something very lurid goes on during the Aberdeen concerts!
But what does the man himself have to say, which is probably more than anything else the reason you've read this far? Runnicles was kind enough to give me the better part of three quarters of a hour, about half the gap between the rehearsal and the concert, for an in-depth interview. What follows is something between summary, analysis and profile. If you wish to go straight to the source instead, you can listen here.
Inevitably, though, even that wasn't enough time for all the questions I could have asked. Some, such as those concerning his early career in Germany, have recently been extremely well covered by Igor Toronyi-Lalic in his interview for new collaborations with the RSAMD, musical education more generally, and his recent debut with the Merchant Sinfonia, will have to wait for another time. That still left time for plenty.
Runnicles is clearly an artist who places great stock in the value of his relationships with other musicians: when asked to name his highlights of this first season with the BBCSSO he is unable to pick any out. True, some have certainly moved this listener more than others, but the impression is that, for the artists involved, the experience has been consistently pleasurable and rewarding. Similarly there is the way he speaks of the chemistry that has existed with Brewer since their very first meeting; there is his preference for working with individual artists first at the piano and thereby obtaining a better feel for their voice or instrument and, I infer, building a better relationship as a result.
Of course, after a recent concert we were treated to a tantalising glimpse of this as Runnicles, at the piano, "my instrument", accompanied Brewer in a solo recital. This is something that he has done in San Francisco and which we can hope to see more of. That said, he's modest about his pianistic talents. Yet, as he says, he thinks orchestrally when playing, so doubtless he brings a different perspective than a professional pianist or accompanist would.
Our discussion took place in the Usher Hall, a building in which he had many formative experiences as a programme seller for Scottish National Orchestra, as it then was, and Edinburgh festival concerts, which give him the opportunity to find, once his duties were done, a vacant seat or step from which to observe proceedings. It was this, he says, which confirmed his desire to be a conductor "the only question was how" (sadly, something I didn't have time to explore).
The closest we come is when Runnicles shares his insights into the challenges of working at Bayreuth, with its unique physical layout and acoustic. More interestingly, he tells of he assisting Solti on the Ring, something of a surprise given they are two conductors I wouldn't readily associate stylistically. Runnicles doesn't seem to have picked up the former's hard driven style, yet he speaks with admiration of the Chicago survey of Mahler symphonies (and in my view rightly so). Solti, of course, did very little at Bayreuth, perhaps because "it drove him insane that what he heard always sounded as if it was late" even though in the auditorium it wasn't. Perhaps in twenty-five years time, if I'm still doing this, I'll be interviewing Jessica Cottis and hearing her anecdotes of Runnicles.
The bulk of his operatic career has, though, been spent at San Francisco Opera, in the seventeen years from 1992 until last Autumn. Has it been easy to make the transition to the very different system of Deutsche Oper? He provides some instructive insights into the differences between SF Opera and Deutsche Oper: the contrasting operational setup of a repertoire house means that some productions are difficult or impossible, and added challenges exist for the orchestra. He insists "I don't work with the musicians any differently, I don't work with the music staff or with the singers any differently". None, the less "you can't rehearse everything quite as much as you would normally, because you literally just don't have the time". It's a question I perhaps should have asked, but is some loss of quality inevitable in such a system? Some of the reviews of his recent Meistersinger suggest that it can be as issue (then again, according to this it seems that may have been because he was standing in for the originally scheduled conductor). Ultimately, he suggests "the music making is the same, but the discipline of putting on opera is different" with the musicians able to "develop this remarkably memory for what you've done".
Time and again what comes over is his passion for music. This is, of course, not altogether surprising in a musician, but whether he is talking about his joy in putting together a programme or his beloved recording of Barbirolli and the Philharmonia playing Mahler's sixth symphony, it is clear that the music is what matters and what comes first. Indeed, he is disbelieving of those who say they don't listen to the recordings of others, there is the "sheer pleasure" if nothing else.
But more than that, there is his natural sense of showmanship, the relish he exhibits when discussing the placement of off-stage instruments and effects, describing the experimentation, the door open, half open, playing towards, playing away, so as to get that "third dimension" because the audience "wants to be engulfed". A lot of this clearly comes from the sense of theatre he has gained by spending the majority of his career in the opera house.
Of course, for those in Scotland wondering whether we will see a little more of the benefit of this operatic experience, the intriguing answer is in the podcast. Unfortunately, insights into future programming were tantalising slim and we'll have to wait until 12th April to learn more.
Where's Runnicles? Well, as you read this he could be anywhere, but for a few hours one Sunday I knew exactly where he was.
Please download or subscribe to the podcast through iTunes and get it straight onto your iPhone/iPod. Hopefully it will be the first of many.
It remains only for me to thank Mark Rock at Audioboo for setting up my account for this all to work (to notch customer service - I can't recommend them highly enough), Peter Gregson, for recommending Audioboo and putting me in touch with Mark, Stephen Duffy and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for arranging this and letting me watch them rehearse, and finally Jessica Cottis and, of course, Donald Runnicles, for giving up their time to speak to me.