Dallas — What a difference a conductor can make! Last weekend the Dallas Symphony presented a completely satisfactory concert of Beethoven and Sibelius with violinist Nicola Benedetti as soloist and Donald Runnicles conducting.
Historically, conductors start in an opera company as a repetiteur (repertory coach), and that is how Mr. Runnicles started in Mannheim, Germany. Conductors only graduated to the symphonic podium after stints as the music director of an opera company, as did Mr. Runnicles. In 1990, he was appointed music director of the San Francisco Opera—after replacing a colleague to conduct Wagner’s towering Ring cycle—and stayed for 17 seasons.
Now, he is the General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, presenting 25 productions a year and more than 200 performances. In 1988, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut when he substituted for an indisposed James Levine and conducted Alban Berg’s Lulu, a complex opera if there ever was one. His experience as an orchestral conductor is also distinguished: he is the Chief Conductor of BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC SSO).
What all this means is that Mr. Runnicles is a master of the art of conducting. His baton technique is a miracle of efficiency with not a wasted motion. At the performance viewed, Jan. 18, in the big moments he built crescendi with tension rather than extravagant motions. At times, he stopped conducting altogether to allow the music space to build on its own. There may have been some moments of confusing communication with the players—I am unsure of that since I was only able to observe him from that back—but it was slightly noticeable in the faces of the orchestra.
He opened the program with an incendiary reading of Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture. The ending may have been too loud, but it was a thrilling performance. It only hinted at the glories to come.
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major is famous among violinists for being “piano music” and, in fact, there is a version of the piece for piano and orchestra. None of this seemed to bother Benedetti, clad in a black floor-length gown. She took the long view of the piece and Runnicles complied. Right from the opening orchestral tutti, this performance said “sit back, relax, and take this journey with us.” The slow (larghetto) movement, played with sheer bliss, cast a spell that was impossible to resist, and we were in the final Rondo movement before we knew it.
The strange aspect of Benedetti’s performances was the cadenza, especially the one for the first movement. It was quite long, but the most startling element was the addition of an important role for the timpani. As unlikely as a duet for violin and timpani might sound, once you got used to the diametrically opposed sonorities it worked in a weird way. Some of the cadenza was pulled from a version of the piano scoring of the concerto, but the origin of most of it was mysterious.
Why Runnicles inserted Sibelius’ seventh symphony into an otherwise Beethoven concert is a mystery, but we were glad that he did. This symphony, the last he wrote, is completely different from his other symphonic efforts. After starting it as a four-movement work, he condensed his materials into one thickly scored movement. In fact, its original title was Fantasia sinfonica No. 1, a "symphonic fantasy.” Even though the symphony only has one tightly condensed movement, there are some barely noticeable but distinctive sections that are marked by tempo changes. But it has little in common with the frigid vacant Norwegian landscapes and meltingly beautiful melodies of his other symphonies.
This is one of the composer’s most rarely heard symphonies because it usually is bewildering to the audience. That didn’t happen under Runnicles’ erudite baton. From the first notes, it was obvious that this is a piece that he understands completely. He put all of the musical pieces in this jigsaw puzzle of a symphony right in place and, like the completed puzzle, the assembled design revealed Sibelius’ symphonic picture.
The program closed with an alternate overture to the one that started the concert, Leonore Overture No. 3. Beethoven wrote four different overtures for his opera Fidelio (originally called Leonore) but finally settled on the Fidelio Overture that opened the concert. Leonore No. 3 is some of the most dramatic music that Beethoven ever penned. It is obvious that it would overpower the modest beginning of the opera. Nowadays, it is frequently played before the finale of the opera. Its overwhelming impression is as oversized as the end as it was in the front of the opera. However, in the concert hall, it is terrific.
Runnicles gave it a humdinger of a performance. When used in the opera, the conductor has to hold back on its drama; here he could play it for maximum impact. And so he did. The standing ovation at the end was not one of the perfunctory de rigueur ovations that closes most concerts. Runnicles and Beethoven propelled us out of our seats.
Let me offer my vote for Runnicles to become the music director of the DSO. He offers everything you could ask for: a big name, a distinguished career and an exceptional conductor. If, of course, he will take it.