Donald Runnicles in Conversation with Michael Cookson

Donald Runnicles in conversation with Michael Cookson

Whether you are a music director in the U.K. or in America or as I am here in Berlin at the Deutsche Oper we are still talking, figuratively speaking, the same language of music. Ultimately it is irrelevant where one is based.”

It’s often said, and I heard this from my mentors, more senior conductors, how it’s a lot harder to conduct a successful Die Fledermaus than the first act of Die Walküre.”

Once you are able to conduct operettas and musicals successfully there are not necessarily too many more challenges in the big Wagner or Richard Strauss stage works.”

I think it’s a challenge for orchestras that play Beethoven, Bruckner and Brahms week in, week out not to become complacent at some stage.”

Just by hearing an orchestra on the radio it gets harder and harder to say that’s the Berlin Philharmonic playing, that’s the Vienna Philharmonic, that’s the London Symphony Orchestra.”

British orchestras are horrendously underfunded, they have very few rehearsals and in order to put on good concerts they have had to be phenomenal sight readers.”

I find that American orchestras are less willing to show their enthusiasm whether it’s for the music, for a conductor, for a soloist; they are very businesslike. It has nothing to do with their playing.”

During my reporting trip to the Musikfest Berlin 2013 I had the good fortune to interview conductor Donald Runnicles. Maestro Runnicles has been the general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin since 2009. A few of days, before as part of the Musikfest Berlin 2013I had reported on a captivating orchestral concert by the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin at the Philharmonie, conducted by Runnicles, playing the Britten Passacaglia and Four Sea Interludes, Les Illumination’ and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 .

A truly international conductor, Edinburgh-born Donald Runnicles began his operatic career as a répétiteur at Mannheim, Germany, soon becoming assistant conductor at the opera house. His really big break was becoming music director of the San Francisco Opera where he worked for seventeen seasons (1992-2008). Runnicles has conducted a number of productions at Bayreuth and made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1988 in Berg’s Lulu as a last minute replacement for James Levine. In addition to his music directorship at the prestigious Deutsche Oper, Berlin Donald Runnicles holds a number of international appointments concurrently, namely principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and, since 2009, chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In addition, from 2005 he has also been music director of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, a venture he talks so enthusiastically about. A highlight in August this year was his second appearance at the BBC Proms, conducting a well-received concert performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser with the combined forces of the chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (review).

I met Donald Runnicles in his office at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. As I was shown in he was clearly enthused by a book of artwork inspired by Britten’s opera Peter Grimes that he had received through the post from an artist working in Africa. Soon it became clear that this was a man who still holds a tremendous infectious enthusiasm for his prodigious music workload together with a refreshing humility. I wish Maestro Runnicles would put his fascinating biography down on paper as his journey to becoming music director at one of the world’s top opera house companies is certainly a fascinating one.

Michael Cookson: I’m curious how this young man from Edinburgh, just out of music school, ended up in Mannheim, Germany?

Donald Runnicles: I was fired up. After my final university year, I went to Cambridge for a year, then I went to London to the London Opera Centre, then to the National Opera Studio. I was fired up by the thought of making a career as a conductor and through research into Gustav Mahler that was a very, very strong focus in my University years I knew that I wanted to be a conductor. I knew that I was a reasonable pianist; I knew it was all about working with singers and coaching. It was through my research into Mahler symphonies that I found out about Mahler the conductor. Under the repertoire system at that time in Vienna and in Europe generally I was utterly astonished at the amount of opera that was being performed. On every single night there was a different opera being performed. I knew then, both with my love of the Romantic music of Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner and my love of opera, it just seemed the right thing to do, to set off on this path – this well-trodden path – that many other conductors in the past had done. I went with a colleague on an audition tour to Germany and I didn’t fare too well, primarily due to my lack of German. The agent at the time in Munich said, frankly, what you should do is to think about just getting a foot in the door here in Germany, perhaps in ballet. All these big opera companies have ballets; become a répétiteur in ballet and work on your German. And perhaps get into the opera that way. Well there were two openings one in Munich and one in Mannheim and I was in the mix. My agent said we can’t get Munich, so go to Mannheim. I went to Mannheim thinking what on earth am I auditioning for a ballet company for? I got the job and then began in 1978 as this ballet répétiteur so I was already ‘in’ at the National Theatre in Mannheim, a house that had more than fifty different operas in their repertoire. I let my love and enthusiasm within the company become well known. The music director at that time, Hans Wallat, heard me, I auditioned for him, there was a vacancy in the opera and I became his assistant conductor.

MC: That was your foot in the door! The plan worked!

DR: Certainly, that was my foot in the door and, yes, the plan worked. In no time I was playing Petrushka and Firebird. It was before the days of CD players and everything was done on the piano, and that’s basically how it happened. I had heard about Mannheim, as many of us had, as being this very storied opera house. There had been Johann Stamitz there, there had been Mozart and there had been Furtwängler; a variety of important people had been in Mannheim at some stage in their careers. I spent nine years there from 1978 to 1987, graduating through the house to first Kapellmeister which is basically second in line to the music director. One season I remember doing something like 116 different evenings.

MC: It seemed like a really active role. Not sitting around waiting, like many assistant conductors have to do for their chance. I recall Leonard Bernstein as assistant conductor to the New York Philharmonic waiting around night after night for his big break.

DR: Oh yes, it certainly was an active role. Initially I was waiting for the chance to conduct and then the opportunities opened up. A couple of terrific music directors, who said ‘hey you’re good but the only way you’re going to improve is by conducting and conducting and conducting’. Then I was conducting every second or third night and I left Mannheim in 1987 with well over forty different titles. It was most of the Verdi, most of the Richard Strauss and most of the Wagner repertoire. Because the house at this time had such a wonderful ensemble they didn’t have to look elsewhere for guest soloists. So at any given time they could put on the big works. In addition to which a number of the singers worked each year at Bayreuth at the Wagner festival and many of the orchestra did too. Horst Stein, Peter Schneider and Hans Wallat, these were all conductors who worked at Bayreuth, so Mannheim was this star-gate, if you like, through which I went and all of a sudden I was no longer just in the world of Mannheim; I was now involved with Bayreuth. I auditioned there, I played there and subsequently I conducted there. Not surprisingly, I have a huge debt of gratitude to the theatre at Mannheim.

MC: On the face of it the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Munich State Opera would have seemed natural first choice but I doubt they would have provided the same opportunities?

DR: Absolutely right. I think it was incredibly serendipitous that I went to Mannheim when initially, I thought, I cannot believe I’ve come all this way here to play ballet. But as it turned out it was so fortuitous because I was immersed in all this opera day in and out. I was aged 23 or 24 and I was like a dry sponge absorbing the language that I was dead set on perfecting. It was part of my big strategy to become one day a music director. What do you do as a music director but set an example in every area including speaking the language? So I set myself that target of becoming fluent in German.

MC: You seem better known as a conductor on the European mainland and in America than in the United Kingdom. Is that fair to say?

DR: It really doesn’t bother me at all if I’m better known outside of the United Kingdom. It was my choice to go abroad; no one forced me to. I chose to leave Britain after my studies. I actually auditioned as a coach for English National Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden but the vacancies had either just been filled or I didn’t get the position. I left Britain and until a few years ago my entire professional life was indeed spent abroad. Initially in Germany, then in Austria, a great deal of which was in Vienna. In 1990 at San Francisco I was invited to assist Peter Schneider in two Ring cycles and I was also asked to conduct the other two Ring cycles that he wasn’t available to do. To cut a long story short the great Sir John Pritchard wanted to conduct all four San Francisco Ring cycles but he was ill and out of deference to him the management left it open to him for quite a while. Sadly, John Pritchard passed away so they had to move very quickly to find conductors for all four Rings. Peter Schneider’s career had just taken off and whilst he was at Bayreuth he said ‘yes, I can conduct two Ring cycles but I have this really quite talented assistant who has prepared for me and who perhaps could conduct the remaining two cycles.’ That’s what in 1990 led subsequently to the musical directorship at the San Francisco Opera. I was in the United States for almost twenty years. So I have absolutely no sour grapes, it was my choice to work in the States, I love working there and I also love working here in Berlin. It’s the beauty of this profession that it’s the same language worldwide. Whether you are a music director in the U.K. or in America, or as I am here in Berlin at the Deutsche Oper we are still talking, figuratively speaking, the same language of music. Ultimately it’s irrelevant where one is based.

MC: So it was better for you to work on the international stage rather than stick to the U.K? Working abroad clearly improved your prospects and opportunities.

DR: Yes, it was and yes, it did. I’ve been thrilled to have these opportunities to work abroad, internationally, to learn languages as I was immersed for a long time in German. I’ve worked in France, I’ve done periods in Italy too, whether it was working with the Orchestre de Paris or at La Scala in Milan and when you are there you do as the Romans do and speak their language. I always saw this as an opportunity from a very early age and I chose to go and work abroad. On every level, socially, politically, culturally, it has opened up my world. It’s just a vast new horizon which would have been far more of a challenge had I stayed in Britain and focused on making my career there.

Donald Runnicles GTMF Credit Florence McCall
Donald Runnicles GTMF (c) Florence McCall

MC: A change of tack now, if I may. I get the impression that opera is your greatest love. If you could revive a neglected opera which one would it be?

DR: That’s a good question. I was thrilled to be at the helm of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt in 2004 with the Wiener Philharmoniker that we did at Salzburg. This precociously talented composer who wrote this opera at the tender age of around twenty-two, and back then it was not performed as much as was warranted. When the opportunity presented itself and there was a Philippe Arlaud production I jumped at the chance and since then it has been done a great deal. Otherwise in terms of neglected operas I think another opera that certainly needs revisiting is Königskinder, Humperdinck’s other opera. [MC: How would you say it compares to Hänsel und Gretel?] Well that’s a little gem for children of all ages and not just children, everyone who has been a child… Oh, at this point I would like to proclaim my love of the music of Benjamin Britten. When I was appointed as music director here in Berlin, at a very early stage, when asked if there were areas where I really wanted to make a difference and if there were certain composers that were very important to me, well for me it was Benjamin Britten. In answer to your question about neglected operas, I considered his operatic masterpieces to have been quite neglected in Berlin for a time. There has been the occasional Berlin production of Peter Grimes such as a few years back at the Komische Oper.

MC: Of course earlier this year there was your Peter Grimes here at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

DR: Quite true, but Britten’s operas have never seemed to have enough traction really to take a hold in Berlin. I was advised by a number of people who held the view that I wouldn’t be successful in Berlin with Britten, who is still regarded as this quintessential English composer, saying it’s been tried, been there, done that, is it modern enough? But I’m thrilled that the Peter Grimes we had here at the Deutsche Oper last season and subsequently with the Billy Budd we are to give later this season we’ll have to wait and see. But our Peter Grimes was a considerable success and I’m very proud of it because I sensed from the people performing it, the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra but also the audience and even some of the critics all accepting the fact that this is great music, truly great music. [MC: Yes, it’s great grand opera.] Absolutely it is!

MC: Peter Grimes is certainly Britten’s finest opera and Billy Budd has the disadvantage of having an all-male cast. A few months ago I saw the Royal Opera House production of Gloriana,another grand opera, which I enjoyed but it doesn’t seem to have the same level of emotional intensity as Peter Grimes.

DR: Yes, Peter Grimes is his operatic masterpiece. But I think that comparisons with Billy Budd and Death in Venice, both of which I consider to be masterpieces, are unhelpful because they are more distilled, a little more specialised, an all-male cast in Billy Budd and Death in Venice being a chamber opera. Anyway, in answer to your question, not only are Britten’s operas neglected, he’s neglected as a composer. Not wishing to be pretentious about it I would love to contribute further to the music of Benjamin Britten being embraced for the phenomenally great music that it is.

MC: I was wondering if you have a particular liking for a British symphony that you think deserves to be played more often?

DR: Well yes, I have a love of Walton’s First Symphony,which is played a great deal in the U.K. but it doesn’t receive the performances it deserves on the continent or in America. It’s an extraordinary work. I am fortunate in my life to be where I have the thrill and pleasure of being able to programme concerts along with others and both the Walton First Symphony and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 that you saw me conduct a few days ago are works that I love to bring to orchestras that have never played them and maybe never even heard them. Yes I’d love to programme them both in the USA.

MC: Last night with the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin you played the FourSea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes prefaced by the Passacaglia.

DR: My challenge with these Britten works, and I’m sure many other orchestras find this too, is when you begin with Dawn with the high E in the flutes and the violins it’s really quite challenging to create the atmosphere within those first bars. And when you consider the fact that the first Interlude in the opera comes after the Prologue. The Prologue has already set up the scene of this noisy, bawdy, highly opinionated village, complete with all the malice, the herd mentality and already a sense that Peter Grimes has been isolated. It’s only Ellen Orford who is willing to stand up for him. Out of all this there is that wonderful moment when they sing together about something utterly irreconcilable and then the First Sea Interlude, Dawn begins. The effect is one of just this purity, this innocence, this world as we would like it to be. When you don’t have the Prologue, when you play it only in the concert performance you somehow have to create that feeling that this is something, a different world. That’s why I find that precedingit with the Passacaglia, which of course comes far later in the opera, has already confronted the audience with something dangerous, something monstrous, something almost violent yet at the same time deeply beautiful. Then the First Sea Interlude, Dawn is offset in such a great way.

MC: I’m sure that I’m not the first to say this but in Britten’s music under the surface I find something deeply unsettling, something dark, something sinister going on.

DR: One of the reasons we programmed the music of Britten and that of Shostakovich was because they were both very private people. We know this from their writings and the testimonies of others. You feel that their true selves are expressed in their music: just the depths that they went, the heights that they scaled. You feel in Britten’s Sea Interludes that at any given moment the most serene mood can so easily be undermined and be turned into something threatening, something dangerous. A little like the greatest metaphor of all, which is the ocean.

MC: Britten and Shostakovich made unlikely friends. I don’t believe they could even speak each other’s language. I must say how much I enjoyed your performance of the Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony last week. What a marvellous work it is and so underrated.

DR: Yes, he had the courage to bring that music to the concert platform. Shostakovich knew that he didn’t have long to live. He idolised his little grandson in a rather Mahlerian sense but also like Britten himself who idolised young innocent children. From the moment you are born some kind of pollution begins but you start out in life so purely. I find that’s why the Fifteenth Symphony, this child-like symphony that is evoked both at the beginning and particularly the end, this toyshop-like world, I find deeply, deeply moving. There are many interpretations, as I’m sure you know. Why did he bring in at the moment of the greatest despair and greatest struggle the William Tell Overture? Was this because of the actual William Tell folk legend, or is it sneering, or is it something serving as a cold shower, on some cryptic level, as we know the story of William Tell, that Swiss world of oppression and repressed people. There are all sorts of reasons you could give for bringing in those quotes from other composers, such as the Wagnerian ones. When I rehearsed the score with this Deutsche Oper orchestra it was clear that the vast majority of the players hadn’t played the work. [MC: They didn’t know it?] They didn’t know the work. So when we come to both the William Tell quotation and the Wagner ‘Fate’ leitmotif from the Ring. It was just priceless to watch their faces, this look of ‘wait a minute where is this work going?’ I view it as an absolute masterpiece and will programme it whenever I can.

MC: The Hallé is an orchestra whose concerts I attend regularly and in spring 2012 their music director, Sir Mark Elder, who I’m sure you know well, took the orchestra into the pit at the Salford Lowry theatre for a series of productions of Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town (review). Sir Mark, who I interviewed around that time, said that he felt the orchestra would improve by undertaking different types of music. It worked marvellously. I was wondering what your thoughts are concerning taking orchestras into the repertoire of musicals or operettas?

DR: I agree totally with Mark. I think it’s incredibly important for a performing organisation, when it comes to versatility and flexibility, to embrace operetta and musicals and in the case of the Hallé the music of Bernstein. We did Bernstein’s Candide in concert form a few seasons ago. As Mark implied and as I experienced for the orchestra it was a voyage of discovery, demanding a rhythmic flexibility of them. It’s rather like speaking a foreign language; it takes a while to get your tongue around it. No, I’m ready to do almost anything in a theatre. When the lights go down, it’s about entertaining, it’s about challenging, it’s about movement. As far as I’m concerned something that has become a little outdated, and unjustly so, in big opera houses is operetta. It’s about doing a Fledermaus, doing a Gypsy Baron, doing a Merry Widow. When I was a young coach at Mannheim, back in the 1980s, lots and lots of operetta was performed and the houses were packed, albeit by an older audience. There was a distinct feel-good factor about this music. You will understand and appreciate that in Germany in the 1970s and 80s, and not just then, there was a genuine need to have something buoyant and uplifting complete with happy endings. [MC: And did you enjoy the operettas?] Oh, I did! It’s often said, and I heard this from my mentors, more senior conductors, how it is a lot harder to conduct a successful Die Fledermaus than the first act of Die Walküre because of the flexibility required, the knowledge of the dialogue, upbeats out of nowhere, it’s all about transitions, tempo transitions from dialogue into music and back and forth. That’s where I cut my teeth as well, just conducting so much and being able to chart those waters. There are lots and lots of rapids to be found in operetta! Once you are able to conduct operettas and musicals successfully there are not necessarily too many more challenges in the big Wagner or Richard Strauss stage works.

MC: So operettas and musicals are something that you would consider for a future season?

DR: Oh yes, I’d love to… I would say probably the most intriguing part of that is who should conduct operetta today? How do you conduct operettas? When so many operettas have a timeless feel to them that appeals to every generation. I would say that operetta is more a late 19th century, early 20th century phenomenon where what was written, rather like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, had a specific audience in mind. The challenge is how you can create the same excitement and entertainment, provocation and satire in an audience of 2013.

MC: You are currently conducting German and American orchestras, and now a British orchestra as you now have the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. How does conducting differ between countries and continents?

DR: I would say the differences are almost insignificant. Once upon a time there were schools of instruments such as a certain type of oboe was played, a certain type of French horn. In other words there would be certain instrument makers, there would be French instrument makers and a French style of playing an oboe, there’d be a Viennese style etc. I’d say these days that great orchestras all over the world work in the same sort of way. Just by hearing an orchestra on the radio it gets harder and harder to say that’s the Berlin Philharmonic playing, that’s the Vienna Philharmonic, that’s the London Symphony Orchestra. You can just occasionally recognise say a certain French horn sound or a particular trumpet sound. In general I think it’s very hard to tell which orchestra is playing from their particular sound. You listen to, say, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony or the Chicago Symphony, there are so many big orchestras these days and I must say as I move around the globe and conduct, the way I conduct and rehearse in the Deutsche Oper is no different. I don’t rehearse in Britain any differently whether it’s with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, or in the United States whether it’s with the Atlanta Symphony or at the Grand Teton Music Festival with an orchestra made up of fine musicians from other orchestras that come together in the summer at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I think that orchestras the world over have become so good that it’s hard to identify any differences. I would say that on one level it’s more of a visceral difference. I find that American orchestras are less willing to show their enthusiasm whether it’s for the music, for a conductor, for a soloist; they are very businesslike. It has nothing to do with their playing. Whereas I find that here in Berlin or with a European orchestra the players are really quite happy to show their enthusiasm right through to the back desk. They are very involved with what is going on, and physically involved too, the mental struggle whether it’s symphonic or operatic. But besides that the differences are like the chicken and the egg. Actually the differences are more historic in that British orchestras are horrendously underfunded, they have very few rehearsals and in order to put on good concerts they have had to be phenomenal sight-readers. They have to do in two rehearsals what a European orchestra would do in five rehearsals. [MC: If they’re lucky!] Yes, if they’re lucky! I have many friends in the recording industry, among them Andrew Keener, one of my best friends and one of the world’s finest record producers. So I know how many times in London recordings are made by the rehearse-and-record, rehearse-and-record approach. Musicians go into the studio and sight read a piece of music and at the next run through the red light is on and they’re recording. In other words over decades, almost over centuries, these orchestras had to become phenomenal sight-readers. Play it and already be able to digest it. The same is true, I have to say, in America too. The speed at which today’s orchestras are able to process new orchestral works and operas is extraordinary. One takes a little longer here in Germany. The reason I said the chicken and the egg, just before, is because there is more rehearsal time here. You see in Germany we have State subsidised orchestras. These extraordinary music institutions here in Germany, in Berlin, where most of the orchestras up to now have been generously subsidised, they have more time to prepare for a concert. Therefore is the need for more rehearsal time predicated on the fact there has never been the pressure of having to do it in less rehearsals and therefore they come for it knowing that they have more rehearsals and I don’t really need to get too involved? It’s an interesting theory.

MC: Have you ever sensed complacency setting in with any orchestra you have worked with?

DR: I think it’s a challenge for orchestras that play Beethoven, Bruckner and Brahms week in, week out not to become complacent at some stage. How many more Beethoven symphonies are we going to play? It takes a lot for an orchestra to keep these standard works sounding fresh and still look forward to playing their umpteenth Beethoven Fifth Symphony; which is not to imply that this is not phenomenally great music…

MC: I sense that this outlook is different for youth orchestras?

DR: The players in youth orchestras are often coming to this music for the first time, compared to those orchestral players who have become a little jaded. Why are players in this profession in the first place? That’s why I enjoy the summer Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming where these exceptional players come together. I talk about them renewing their vows. It’s beautiful up there in the Rockies and the players come from the big cities to be restored. There is something restorative about the music, working with friends, hopefully with good conductors and reminding themselves why they were passionate about this profession in the first place. That’s what I find when I work with young people in youth orchestras – and I would like to do that a lot more than I currently have the time for, to experience this initial adolescent euphoria when playing their first Beethoven Eroica, playing their first Shostakovich Fifth. I know that Maestro Abbado when he first created the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe was somehow creating these Peter Pan orchestras, this feeling that they will never grow up, that they will always retain this wide eyed astonishment over performing classical music. I think it’s important as a conductor to have a very good mix.

MC: Thank you Maestro for your time and for a most fascinating interview. I much appreciate it. I hope it’s not too long before I’m at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin again.

DR: You’re very welcome.

Michael Cookson