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In February, Christoph Eschenbach announced he would step down as director of the National Symphony Orchestra in 2017, and the search for—and speculation about—his replacement formally began. Formally, that is, but not publicly; the Kennedy Center’s selection process for a new NSO director is about as transparent as the Vatican’s for a new pope. Thus, D.C.’s classical fans will have to look for smoke signals for the next two years, but the most obvious sign of a serious candidate is a visit by a prominent guest conductor with a contract about to expire. Someone like Donald Runnicles.
Runnicles has been leading the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for the past five years, though he’s been with them since 2001. He recently announced his semi-retirement from that orchestra (next year he will become their “conductor emeritus,” similar to the “conductor laureate” role Eschenbach will transition to at the NSO), which basically means “looking for another job.”
A Scottish conductor, Runnicles has experience with American orchestras, not all of it positive: Around this time last year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had locked out its own musicians after they resisted management’s demands to slash their pay, lay off players, and cut their schedule. Runnicles, as ASO’s principal guest conductor, wrote an open letter lambasting the ASO’s board and management for “a one-sided attempt to force the orchestra to its collective knees.” Orchestra lockouts have become a depressingly common occurrence in this country; Runnicles’ speaking out on behalf of embattled musicians surely endeared him to them. And given the NSO’s relative isolation from the kinds of money woes that affect many other U.S. orchestras (being a part of the Kennedy Center, part of the NSO’s budget is Congressionally guaranteed), D.C. could be an attractive place for him to land.
And if this week’s program is a tryout for Runnicles, it’s an impressive one. His command of the orchestra Thursday was assured, and versatile, given the variety of pieces in the program. It opened with a vigorous overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute, with light, nimble footing and crisp work by the strings. Runnicles demonstrative conducting style—ducking and weaving and sweeping his arms around—contrasts with Eschenbach, who sometimes conducts entire works simply by nodding.
Runnicles’ talents were most on display, however, for his two pieces by English composer Edward Elgar. The second of these was his Enigma Variations, a series of musical portraits of 14 of the composer’s friends, some of whom he apparently didn’t like, given the occasional furious outbursts mixed in with precious waltzes and such. But the better of the two was his Serenade for String Orchestra. The orchestra’s strongest work of the evening by far was for its second movement, the larghetto, before which Runnicles paused for the Kennedy Center audience’s coughing to subside (it didn’t, and was joined by a malfunctioning hearing aid). It’s a gorgeous late Romantic piece with glacial transitions. Runnicles revels in these gradual dynamic shifts and soaring swells, giving everything an exaggerated sense of majesty.
Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko gave a very nice vocal performance in the program’s middle, for Richard Strauss’ deathbed composition, the morbidly titled Four Last Songs. Strauss’ wife was also a soprano; as her stand-in, Peretyatko matched her apparently quite deep register in the first song, showing off an impressive range. However, in comparison to the striking bookend parts of the program, the Strauss songs drifted airily in an ill-defined manner; the orchestra sounded less crisp, and the whole thing was muddled and confusing, like a column by Tom Friedman, who was in the audience.
But even the less interesting Strauss piece had symbolic weight: It was last performed at the Kennedy Center with Reneé Fleming as the soloist, at Eschenbach’s inaugural concert as NSO director. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but if you’re looking for smoke signals, thus far Runnicles appears very much in the running.
The program continues Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $15 – $89.
Correction: The NSO writes: “The Kennedy Center receives an appropriation from Congress to support the facilities and maintenance of the memorial aspects of the building only. None of the appropriated money goes toward programming, NSO or otherwise.” I would add, however, that budgets are fungible, and other orchestras have to pay for rent or upkeep of concert halls with money which might otherwise pay for programming and musician salaries. See Flanagan, Robert J. The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, Yale University Press 2012.