After Mahler and Wagner, Donald Runnicles has made a somewhat bolder choice to open his third season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, selecting a newish work receiving its Scottish premiere: James MacMillan's St John Passion. If the brief snippets I've heard from the LSO's recording are anything to go by, it should be quite something. To perform it they are joined by the London Symphony Chorus, who premiered it, and also the BBC Singers and baritone Tommi Hakala. Discussing the season, Runnicles described the work as having a rare level of spirituality, though he also suggested that it isn't necessary to share MacMillan's Catholic faith to fully appreciate it.
The only shame is that it's not one of the concerts coming to the Usher Hall. As was the case last year there are three, all with Runnicles. They lean slightly conservatively. In addition to the absence of MacMillan, the programme that features Brahms' Alto Rhapsody and his 1st symphony, along with Schumann's 4th, has been shorn of Detlev Glanert's new work. Something similar happens with the last concert of the three: where in Glasgow they get Osvaldo Golijov's Mariel, we get Mozart's clarinet concerto (though in the hands of Martin Fröst it should be rather special). And the works that we are getting should be real treats. After the glorious Bruckner 8 Runnicles did last season, the 7th is not to be missed. Ditto the first concert, which they don't get in Glasgow, which features Strauss's last four songs with Michaela Kaune and Elgar's 2nd symphony.
However, much of the most intriguing music is on Thursdays in Glasgow, which is a shame as it then clashes with the SCO's Edinburgh concerts.
After this season's Wagner, it's good to see more concert opera (something that hasn't recurred in the SCO's 2011/12 season). We get two treats, the first comes in mid-November when Runnicles is joined by Twyla Robinson, Lucy Crowe and Daniela Sindram for his arrangement of highlights from Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier. As the conductor noted, he has attempted to ensure it doesn't just feel like a series of bleeding chunks. Then there is Bluebeard's Castle. The BBC SSO introduced me to this work at the festival a few years back under the baton of Ilan Volkov and I'll never forget it. This time around Sara Fulgoni and Robert Bork are conducted by Josep Pons.
At a recent RSNO concert I heard a very impressive performance of Prokofiev's 3rd piano concerto and felt I ought to explore them more fully. As luck would have it, then, the orchestra are surveying them all. The pianist is Denis Kozhukhin and, if the brief clip in the promotional film is anything to go by, he should prove impressive. Another very different cycle kicks off under the baton of Andrew Manze: over the next three years he will conduct all of Vaughan Williams' symphonies. So it is that this year we get numbers 4, 5 and 6. In that same film, Manze states a desire to show the composer in a fresh light, dispelling the unkind description of the symphonies being like a cow looking over a fence (though I suspect anyone who thinks that probably hasn't heard Adrian Boult's first set of recordings).
Another focus is cello concerti. One obvious highlight is perhaps Dvořák's concerto (played by Andreas Brantelid, part of a programme that also features Sibelius's 4th symphony), however the one that jumps out at me most is the appearance by Steven Isserlis. In an all French programme he plays a Debussy suite that has been arranged by Sally Beamish and Ravel's Deux melodies hebraiques which he has arranged himself. These are set alongside better known works such as La Mer and La Valse with the man himself conducting. Runnicles commented that he loves French music for what he called its Alice in Wonderland quality and the feeling that you can almost reach out and touch the orchestral colours. The team then travel on to Leeds where, two days later, they give an almost completely different programme that includes La Mer, Saint-Saens' first concerto and Brahms' 2nd symphony. As an extra treat, after helping introduce the season, Runnicles seated himself at the keyboard and was joined by the orchestra's principal cellist Martin Storey to play some Rachmaninov. It was also a taster, as Storey will feature as soloist several times over the year.
After standing in at the last minute so superbly, most especially with Sibelius's violin concerto, it is excellent to see Vilde Frang return. She performs twice: Nielsen's violin concerto with Manze and Mozart's 5th concerto with Runnicles. After praising her musicality and freshness, the conductor also noted, in reference to last year's German tour, she was "one crazy woman," though this seemed to be meant in the nicest of ways.
Recently I was complaining about the lack of celebrations of the centenary of Bernard Herrmann, so it is great to see the BBC SSO give a weekend over to his work. On the Saturday they perform the score to Psycho live for a screening of the film, then on the following day they play selections from some of his other scores, such as Vertigo and North by Northwest. Both are conducted by John Wilson.
There's plenty for those outside Edinburgh and Glasgow. The BBC SSO maintain six concerts in Aberdeen (it is expected that when the RSNO and SCO announce their joint season on Wednesday it will mark a reduction). These includes three appearances by Runnicles for some heavyweight romantic symphonies: Brahms 1, Elgar 2 and Bruckner 7. However, the one that most jumps out at me is Ilan Volkov's programme which features the Liebestod from Tristan, Berlioz's Le Mort de Cleopatre and Sibelius's 2nd symphony (he also brings the programme to Glasgow for his only appearance this season).
All in all, it looks an exciting season. Taken together with the programmes already announced by the SCO and the RSNO, 2011/12 looks set to be a vintage year. Brochures for Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow are available for download.
Interestingly, the Glasgow season comes to a close on a Monday. It is preceded by what the programme describes as "Donald Runnicles Weekend". Precisely what that means is unclear as the full details are still to be announced, but we are promised a live edition of In Tune from the RSAMD. Stay tuned though, for once we know what Runnicles is up to that weekend, we'll let you know (and we'll doubtless be there to report on it).