One particular quality defines the stellar career of Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles: balance. He has long managed to find an equilibrium between the operatic and symphonic worlds, serving as music director and principal conductor of the San Francisco Opera from 1992 through 2008 and principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 2001 — to cite just two of his key posts.
That balance has been a prime goal for Runnicles. “To a certain degree, there is an artificial divide, certainly in America, between conductors who conduct the symphony and who conduct opera,” he said. “I find that a little perplexing, because ultimately to make great music, whether with a symphony orchestra or an opera company, you are always addressing the same things. What lies at the heart of all of our music-making is the human voice, and that informs a Mahler symphony just as much as it informs Tosca. So I’ve always tried to be a little iconoclastic when it comes to not fitting into this mold that you either do opera or the symphony.”
Chicago audiences will again get a chance to hear his orchestral conducting skills when Runnicles leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program May 5, 7 and 10 that combines two British works with Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration.
After working for a year at the London Opera Centre, Runnicles began his career in earnest at age 23 as a vocal coach and assistant conductor in Mannheim, Germany; he has maintained ties to Germany since. From 2009, he has served as general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, one of three major opera companies in Germany’s capital city. “We have the biggest repertoire in Berlin, and we do close to 32-33 different productions a year,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary company in that regard. It’s certainly worthy of a metropolis like Berlin. Many people imagine that we do what the house is famous for long before I came here — the Wagner and the Strauss. But now we have the [Leoš] Janáček and the Benjamin Britten. We have a very, very broad repertoire, and that’s why I’m a very busy but a very fulfilled guy here.”
In large part because the government generously subsidizes the Deutsche Oper Berlin, along with the city’s two other opera companies, the company is in good financial health. “It speaks to the city in a very profound way,” Runnicles said. “There is no discussion about: Are three opera houses too many for a city? Just the opposite.” It helps, he said, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes time in her schedule to attend opera and as other classical events in the city, helping to drive home their importance to the nation’s culture.
Runnicles has made Berlin his principal residence, and he spends seven months a year there. Given this commitment and his long history with the country, he has learned to speak German fluently. “I don’t regard that as a luxury,” he said. “It’s a necessity. To be a music director of a company this size, you have to assume that you are absolutely fluent in the language. But I’m fluent in the language not just because I feel the obligation to be fluent, but I feel, and this applies to any country, that to really understand people on different levels, I think it is essential that you speak the language and fluently. There is no way I could really operate here both with musicians or politicians if I didn’t speak the language.”
In the summer, Runnicles and his family travel to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where since 2005 he has served as music director of the Grand Teton Music Festival. It draws musicians from top symphony and opera orchestras around the country. Among the CSO musicians who have performed there are principal violist Charles Pikler and trombonist Michael Mulcahy. Runnicles discovered the festival in 2004. “I was completely blown away by the place, by the gorgeous hall in which they play and the phenomenal standard of this orchestra, which is like Verbier in Europe,” he said. “It’s this who’s who of players who come from the Metropolitan Opera, who come from Atlanta and Detroit and the San Francisco Symphony.”
Throughout his career, Runnicles has preferred what his website has described as “close, enduring and extensive relationships” with a small number of carefully chosen musical institutions vs. short stints here or there or extensive guest conducting. Other key relationships in his career have included serving as principal conductor of the New York-based Orchestra of St. Luke’s in 2001-07 and chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony from 2009 (he becomes conductor emeritus starting in September).
“As in life, you seek relationships, and you seek to deepen those relationships,” he said. “I’m not the typical guest conductor in that respect. I don’t necessarily enjoy, and I don’t mean this in any way pejoratively, going to new orchestras. I love to be with the orchestras with whom I’ve established over many years a relationship. I treasure the relationship with Atlanta. I treasure the relationship with Philadelphia. I’m thrilled that I have this ongoing relationship with Chicago. I have the music in the Tetons. I have Berlin. Like everybody else, I only have 52 weeks in a year, and I care to focus my attention on deepening relationships.”
Runnicles made his first appearance with the CSO in 1995, leading a program that featured Holst’s The Planets. He came back during the 1997-98 season. But he did not return to the orchestra until October 2014, when he stepped in on short notice for Jaap van Zweden, who was sidelined with an injured rotator cuff.
For that program, Runnicles led the CSO in one of its signature works, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. He regards those concerts one of the most thrilling experiences of his life.
Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, critic Andrew Patner had nothing but praise for the conductor’s fill-in appearance: “Having heard Runnicles lead Wagner’s weeklong Ring Cycle at the San Francisco Opera three years ago, one of the most unified and captivating I’ve ever experienced, I was hopeful for his substitution here in another ‘big’ work. But to deliver such a success in a house that, in part, the advocacy of Mahler built, was a great accomplishment.”
For his return this season, the CSO asked him to program some English music, so the concerts will begin with Britten’s Sinfonia da requiem, a symphony written by the composer in 1940 at age 26 as a memorial to his parents. It is Britten’s largest purely orchestral work. Runnicles describes himself as a “huge” Britten fan. “I think he is one of the most visionary voices of the 20th century,” he said. “His pacifism informs a great deal of his music, both symphonically and operatically.” Runnicles has made Britten a pillar of the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s offerings, including this season’s presentation of Peter Grimes. “I was advised,” he said, “when I started here, ‘No, no, it’s not the music for Berlin. It’s been tried.’ Well, I have proven many people wrong. Britten in Berlin is alive and well.”
Also on his CSO program is Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, an 1888-89 tone poem about the death of a poet, a work that Runnicles described as “synonymous” with the Chicago Symphony. When Runnicles was younger, he recalls playing the orchestra’s classic 1956 recording with Fritz Reiner over and over again. Runnicles and the CSO artistic department see a correlation between that masterwork and the “anguish and terrifying violence” of Britten’s Sinfonia. The program concludes with Elgar’s well-known Enigma Variations, which the conductor calls a “wonderful, glorious piece.”
After rekindling his ties with the CSO over the last few years, Runnicles is ready for more: “I hope my relationship with this remarkable orchestra will continue.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.