Why Classical Music is Flowering in Scotland

03.18.10
Donald Runnicles
The Times Online (UK)

By Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Five years ago Scottish classical music was staring into the abyss. Cuts, closures and mergers threatened the very existence of Scotland’s opera house and professional orchestras. Not since the days of John Knox, when the country was convinced that most music you couldn’t whistle was the work of the Devil, had the classical art form had it so bad. “It was a fairly existential crisis,” explains the Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles, a look of pain on his face.

But how the laid-low have grown mighty. Scotland today is in the grip of a classical music renaissance. Leading the charge is Runnicles, the big-framed, fierce-faced, soft-voiced 53-year-old man from Edinburgh turned international conducting powerhouse. Last year he became the principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. His upcoming concerts with the orchestra in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh are packed with works by the composers with whom he has become synonymous: Strauss, Wagner, Beethoven and Mahler.

As at many points in their history the Scots have pinned their musical destiny on the success of one saviour. But who better to lead Scotland out of their troubled times than, arguably, the greatest conductor Scotland has produced (and, after his recent appointment to one of Germany’s most prestigious opera houses, Deutsche Oper, certainly the most successful) .

The waves were felt from the moment that the BBCSSO announced its coup. The news that, after 30 years away from home, Runnicles would be returning was transformative, says Michael Tumelty, the music critic of the Glasgow Herald. “We all felt that the ante was being upped, And everyone started upping their game too.”

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra responded by hiring the 25-year-old Rattle protegé Robin Ticciati. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra splashed out on expensive soloists and guest conductors to keep up, and crowned it with a diplomatic trip to Amsterdam and Paris with Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond.

The RSNO has been transformed from the grumpy old man of the Scottish orchestral scene into a vital new force. The orchestra had previously achieved notoriety for performing Via Sacra, a new work by James Dillon, so badly that the BBC refused to broadcast it. Reports of the orchestra yawning and laughing during the performance and the leader of the violas stamping on the score were rife. “I didn’t even notice,” Dillon says. “It happens almost every time with orchestras that don’t do new music such as the RSNO.”

But with the invigorating young Frenchman Stéphane Denève at the helm, the RSNO is back on the map and venturing tentatively into the 20th century, if not the 21st. It knows it needs to find someone equally dynamic to replace Denève when he leaves in 2012.

These changes accompanied the transformation of Glasgow’s City Halls from a boarded-up Formica wasteland into one of the most handsome concert halls in Britain, as well as the building of a glistening new world-class concert hall for humble Perth, all at the same time as Scottish composers such as James MacMillan, Judith Weir and James Dillon continued to lead the way with acclaimed new compositions.

For Runnicles at the BBCSSO, the catalyst for change wasn’t his arrival, but the shock of the dark days. “No one was complacent after that,” he explains. His band “re-emerged from it all with the feeling of: ‘We’re going to show everybody why we’re such a good orchestra and why we exist’ ” .

Even so, Scotland is not finding it easy to shake off a latent musical parochialism. One punter told the conductor that Bruckner “isn’t my cup of tea”, having just heard him perform a searingly powerful account of Bruckner’s mammoth Eighth Symphony with the BBCSSO. Runnicles just looked weary after the encounter, as if it was a conversation he’d had too many times already.

It was as a result of this lack of musical curiosity that Scottish talent fled abroad to seek their musical worth and garlands. Runnicles acknowledges how much he owes to Scotland — his formative influence was catching Scottish Opera’s first Ring Cycle in 1971 — but his reputation was forged on the Continent. In Germany, Mannheim (where he was front-page news), Freiburg and Bayreuth, at the side of Georg Solti. In Austria, guesting at the State Opera, and in America at the head of the Atlanta Symphony and then the San Francisco Opera.

The earning of foreign spurs by young Scottish talent might now be a thing of the past. Runnicles has been ensconced within the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama as both board member and first International Fellow in Conducting. But it’s going to take much more if Scotland is to emulate what Runnicles experienced in Germany where, if he drove for a hour in any direction from Mannheim, he would hit another six opera houses.

“As an artist, one is far more of an ambassador here,” Runnicles explains, comparing the situation in Scotland with that on the Continent. “You have that thrill of thinking that you are introducing a generation, an audience, to a work that has already established itself as a staple piece of repertoire.”

For the first time, too, Scotland appears to have a government that recognises the potential benefits of a lusty musical scene. “People are starting to understand that a pride in one’s culture has an economic as well as an aesthetic benefit,” says Ian Smith, head of music at the Scottish Arts Council.

Now that the funding for all Scotland’s main performing arts companies has been taken away from the Arts Council and placed under the direct administration of the Scottish Executive, the orchestras feel much more secure. “They’ve basically cut out the middle man,” Tumelty says.

It’s been a success, Smith says. “The orchestras are now treated as a national collection, a national gallery. And, as national resources, that’s how they should be treated.” Orchestral competition is the vital spark, he adds. “Speak to any of the orchestras and they’ll say that they need each other. ” The competition could be ratcheted up yet another gear as the RSNO seeks a successor to Denève. Whoever they choose, the future for Scotland is noisy.