First published in the Guardian on 14 November, 2014
Packed hall, telly cameras, Beethoven’s Ninth; the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra mustered due pomp for the 60th birthday of its chief conductor Donald Runnicles, filmed for posterity and the orchestra’s website. All the cheerful on-stage chat (Runnicles described his relationship with the BBCSSO blossoming from love affair to marriage: “I can see their grimaces as I speak”) didn’t detract from the task at hand. This was a bold and luminous account of Beethoven’s great paean of humanity, full of a collective elation that cannot be faked.
Technically it was classic Runnicles: that combination of in-the-moment thrills and slow-burn grandeur. The Ninth can be a messy symphony, its brazen diversity laced with pitfalls. But Runnicles navigated the jump-cuts with a looseness that embraced their chaotic logic and by extension that of the world around us. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus – in whose inaugural concert he sang as a boy soprano back in 1965 – made a punchy, fearless contribution; soloists Angela Meade, Elizabeth Bishop, Stuart Skelton and Marko Mimica sounded glossy and spirited. The orchestra went for bright, light poise rather than plush romanticism: the buzz of the Scherzo was built on clean articulation, nothing forced, and the Adagio had a simple, vocal grace. The first whisper of the Ode to Joy theme was startlingly plain, as elemental as the soil. The message was clear and dignified.
Before the interval, leader Laura Samuel and principal violist Scott Dickinson were soloists in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante K 364. There’s something uniquely convivial when concerto soloists come from within the ranks of the orchestra. Samuel couldn’t help but move with the violins; Dickinson’s broad, glowing sound melded with his section during tuttis. The solos were adept, conversational and playful and the cadenzas were sleek and searching, but really this performance was all about the group.