Matthias Pintscher, Donald Runnicles
The Herald Scotsman

By Michael Tumelty

Wall to wall blockbusters

Blockbusters, two birthdays and a bombshell.

No Scottish orchestra, in the current wave of new-season launches, has failed to come up to the mark. But the BBC SSO, unveiling its new concert programmes today, has produced not only the best concert season by the corporation in at least 30 years; it has produced a set of programmes that are downright sensational.

Chief conductor Donald Runnicles will take five concerts himself in the 15-concert Thursday night series, launching the season with the ultimate blockbuster when he conducts the complete first act from Wagner’s opera The Valkyrie, which, as a stand-alone piece, is the greatest, most electrifying set-piece in the entire Ring cycle. Soprano Heidi Melton and tenor Stuart Skelton will sing the brother-sister-lovers roles of Sieglinde and Siegmunde.

As if that wasn’t enough intensity for one evening, Runnicles will preface the Valkyrie with Sibelius’s molten Violin Concerto played by the great Dutch violinist Janine Jansen. Then, in week two, Runnicles keeps the voltage high by powering into Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, while Jansen, staying on for a fortnight, plays Brahms’s Violin Concerto.

And believe me, it rolls on like that. Runnicles, on subsequent visits, keeps it big with a momentous programme that includes Brahms’s German Requiem for which he will be joined by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. The temperature stays high as we hear his Brahms Two and Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder with Karen Cargill. And, for the first time, Runnicles gives us his take on French music with a sweeping programme that includes Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto, Debussy’s Images, Ravel’s Mother Goose and the warhorse Bolero.

It is, quite frankly, a season of wall-to-wall blockbuster events as the other house conductors pile in. Ilan Volkov has three programmes, including Bruckner’s mighty Fifth Symphony, Elgar’s Second and Tchaikovsky’s explosive Fifth.

The SSO’s brilliant new associate guest conductor, Andrew Manze, has one evening concert in the new season, though he’ll be doing daytime concerts, too (details to come). Picking up the Brahms thread that runs through the season, he’ll conduct the Fourth Symphony, which will probably be a total revelation.

That Brahms thread has been capitalised on in a uniquely BBC way. The Beeb has commissioned two top Scottish composers, Sally Beamish and Stuart MacRae, each to write a piece inspired by a Brahms symphony. Andrew Manze will conduct the Beamish, Runnicles the MacRae.

The season will also celebrate the 75th birthday of the SSO with an amazing concert which will be conducted by former SSO staffer, BBC favourite and one of the most versatile of British conductors, Martyn Brabbins.

The programme will have the premiere of a new work commissioned from Helen Grime, the Scottish composer whose star is soaring. It will also feature Nicola Benedetti with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

Brabbins, in a triumphant return to his old band, will also conduct both of William Walton’s symphonies across two concerts, as well as a recent piece by Glasgow composer Martin Suckling, and, in a sensational concert with soprano Susan Gritton, a performance of Britten’s Les Illuminations along with the first concert performance of three further songs from the Rimbaud cycle, discovered only recently and orchestrated by Colin Matthews.

Britten features again in another programme in an English music series when Steven Osborne plays the dazzling Piano Concerto, for the recording of which Linlithgow’s finest won the Gramophone Award. That concert will be conducted by Vassily Sinaisky, who will also give a Russian’s take on Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony.

Another favourite guest conductor (not room for many in a crowded house of staff conductors) is the brilliant Andrew Litton who, along with all the others, will keep the emotional temperature way up high with Sibelius’s First Symphony, as will the superb chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, John Storgards with Sibelius’s symphonic poem The Wood Nymph and Bartok’s great Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta.

OTHER star soloists appearing in the season include pianist Ronald Brautigam playing Mozart, Anthony Marwood and Lawrence Power with a rare performance of Britten’s Double Concerto for Violin and Viola, violinist Daniel Hope directing and playing Bach’s A minor Concerto, Johannes Moser playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Hakan Hardenberger playing Birtwistle’s scorching Endless Parade, cellist Lynn Harrell playing the Dutilleux with Runnicles and the great Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Volkov.

On top of all this there will be five concerts in the SSO’s hugely popular, massively attended Afternoon Performance series (details to come). With a new criterion of integration, every one of these will feature a BBC New Generation Artist.

The BBC’s unique contemporary music series Hear and Now will also unfold its details in due course.

Which brings us to the other birthday. James Dillon, the Glasgow-born hard man of modern music, will be 60, and the BBC SSO is going to stage a performance of his Nine Rivers, a huge series of nine works that has been attempted but never yet played complete. The running time is four hours, and the forces will include the SSO, a solo percussionist, and the percussion super-group, Les Percussions de Strasbourg. The Dillon specialist conductor Rolf Gupta has been engaged to get the whole thing done for the first time. And there will be more birthday Dillon.

Which leaves the small matter of the bombshell. With the biggest, and arguably strongest, house team of conductors in the UK with Runnicles, Volkov and Manze, the BBC SSO today announces that it has made yet another appointment.

He is the German-born, New York-based conductor and composer Matthias Pintscher. He is a red-hot property. Out of the inner circuit he’s not that widely-known, but he operates at the top level of the music business.

He wrote one of the satellite pieces Simon Rattle commissioned to go with Holst’s Planets. The Berlin Philharmonic commissioned him to write a piece for Claudio Abbado’s 75th birthday, which he also conducted. He has a new song cycle for Thomas Hampson and the New York Philharmonic being premiered this week. He is writing a piece for the Cleveland Orchestra. He conducts all of these orchestras. He also conducts the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He is also a teacher with professorships at the Curtis Institute, the Juilliard and New York University.

And, in a total coup, the BBC SSO has nabbed him and created for him a new post of Artist in Association.

“The antennae are always out,” said Gavin Reid, director of the SSO, explaining that they have been looking for a successor to former composer in association Jonathan Harvey. The chance of getting Pintscher would enable the Beeb to broaden the remit as the German is as much a conductor as a composer.

They brought him over privately for some non-public Radio 3 sessions in the studio, during which he conducted a Mendelssohn Four that, said Reid, was “absolutely exquisite”. And they pounced, creating a “new and flexible post where Matthias can make an impact on different levels”.

Pintscher’s new post will start in the autumn, and he’s straight into the winter season with a programme of Messiaen, Mozart’s Prague Symphony and Stravinsky’s complete Pulcinella ballet score.

But before that Pintscher will be here next month to take a Hear and Now Portrait concert which will feature his own music alongside pieces by Edgard Varese and Wolfgang Rihm.

Securing him is a gobsmacking coup for the SSO.

“That’s it,” said Gavin Reid, looking like the Cheshire Cat. “We have our team. I’ll stop collecting now.”