Donald Runnicles

Review: Vaughan Williams Fantasia | Dallas Symphony Orchestra | Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center

British Invasion

With the excellent Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles on the podium, the Dallas Symphony offers an evening of British composers.

published Friday, January 15, 2016

Photo: Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles


Dallas — We are used to concerts that are all Beethoven, all Mozart, all Russian, all French and so on—but all British composers? Not so much. In fact, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert on Thursday evening may have been a first for many in the audience (except for single-work concerts, of course). We had a concert of works by, and conducted by, all U.K. folk: Walton, Britten, Vaughn Williams and Elgar, and Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles on the baton.

Runnicles is primarily known an opera conductor who moved into the symphony orchestra field later in life. He was the Music Director of the San Francisco Opera (1992-2008) and now holds that post with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He also has some orchestral gigs: he is the Chief Conductor of BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson, Wyoming.

But his love is opera.

Runnicles is one of just a few left-handed conductors. The baton held in the left hand can be disconcerting to orchestras. As a result, his conducting technique involves keeping his arms outstretched to the side most of the time. This may also be the result of conducting in orchestra pits that are long and not very wide. Each side would get one hand, in that case. It makes him appear stiff, but he manages to be very expressive and precise.

Photo: Gittings
Violinist Alexander Kerr

Along operatic lines, he opened the concert with Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s dark opera Peter Grimes. The Sea Interludes are short orchestral reflections that act as a bridge from one scene to the next one.  The sea is a major character in the opera, in that it is set in a mid-19th century Suffolk coastal village, and the main character is a fisherman. The plot revolves around the mysterious circumstances of the loss of his missing apprentice, presumed drowned.

The opening of the first interlude is treacherous; violins at the octave and doubled by the flute. A series of long notes, each followed by a few very quick ones like a turn, adds to the troubles. Runnicles’ beat, at least as seen from the back, was more general than this passage usually requires. However, the DSO players did a fine job right from the beginning. So, the beat must have been more precise than was observed from the audience—or the DSO was used to it from rehearsals.

It really doesn’t matter because the performance of all four interludes was terrific and those who knew the piece could relax after the success of the first phrase. Runnicles has a long history with this opera and recorded it on video with the Metropolitan Opera in 2008. That experience came through as he painted Britten’s musical pictures, from the peaceful dawn to a fearsome storm.

William Walton’s Violin Concerto received a blazing performance from concertmaster Alexander Kerr. The concerto was commissioned by Jascha Heifetz for his own use and thus is packed with technical fireworks and acrobatics. Over-packed, really.

In addition, the overall architecture is hard for the audience to discern. It sounds like entire sections were added here and there, helter-skelter, to accommodate Heifetz’s desire for ever more difficult passages. That is a questionable assertion, to say the least, but it would explain why the concerto feels long and overly showy.

Kerr made as good a case for the concerto as you are likely to hear. Many of us were sent home to reevaluate Walton’s dense concerto and make another perusal of the score.

Kerr flawlessly negotiated all of the mind-numbing virtuoso demands, many of which are awkward on the instrument, without apparent strain. Intonation was equally excellent. Further, he brought more musicality to the concerto than is usually heard. Maybe that is because simply getting through it, and playing all the notes, distracts other violinists from understanding the piece. With a mastery of the notes as a starting point—no easy task—Kerr was able to concentrate on making some music while involving the audience with Walton’s score.

Kerr received a much-deserved standing ovation and sincere applause from the members of the orchestra.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is a veritable orgy of gorgeous chords using the old church modes (such as Phrygian) and surrounding Tallis’ modest theme. (The Phrygian mode is the scale between E and E on the piano and using only white keys).

The Fantasia is only scored for strings, but you need a profusion of them, which is one of the glories of the DSO. They are divided into groups: violins in one, celli and the basses in another, a small group located in the back row (ideally further away from the main groups) that acts like an echo organ at the back of a cathedral, and a solo string quartet. Runnicles turned in a beautifully shaped performance, with waves of gorgeous widely spaced and thickly scored chords washing over the audience. It was an exhilarating performance of a very Zen piece.

The program came to an overheated close with Edward Elgar’s splashy concert overture, In the South (Alassio), Op. 50. That would be the south of Italy, where the town of Alassio is located. It is mostly noisy, except for the lovely serenade in the center of the work, surprisingly assigned to the unjustly ignored viola. Ellen Rose was glorious, playing it with a rich and deep sound, without the more usual layer of schmaltz.

But the piece itself is overblown and very dated by its turn-of-the-century musical vocabulary and the use of an overstuffed orchestra. Runnicles played it for maximum effect—what else can you do with it? But it is also effective and it brought the concert to a rousing close with the audience leaping out of their seats…again. Thanks For Reading

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British Invasion
With the excellent Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles on the podium, the Dallas Symphony offers an evening of British composers.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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