Sir Donald Runnicles conducts DSO in Britten program

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Scottish conductor Sir Donald Runnicles gets around.

He holds down three principal gigs -- general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, music director at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson, Wyoming, as well as principal guest conductor at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

And Thursday and Friday, Runnicles will conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in a program of Benjamin Britten and Carlos Simon.

Though he's never been in Detroit before, not counting Metro Airport, he's already got good connections.

"The Grand Teton festival is patronized by a number of DSO musicians," Runnicles said Tuesday, "so I fully expect to see some friends."

Sir Donald Runnicles will lead the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Thursday and Friday in a program of Britten and Carlos Simon.

This will be the conductor's first exposure to Simon, he said, adding that in studying the work, he's been very impressed.

The piece in question is the African-American composer's "An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave," dedicated to victims of oppressive governments everywhere, but in particular to Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, all unarmed Black men gunned down by police.

"At its core, the piece is tonal," Runnicles said, as opposed to hyper-modern atonality. "Simon writes very idiomatically for the strings. But at the same time it’s very creative. Heavens," he said and laughed. "There are melodies in it."

The Britten piece, "Variations for String Orchestra on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10,"

is also rather high concept -- dedicated, as it is, to the famed teacher in the title. Written in 1937 and first performed at the Salzburg Festival, it's the piece that reportedly brought Britten international attention.

"Some might say Bridge was a greater teacher than composer," Runnicles said. "He wrote fine works, but will be remembered primarily for his mentorship of Britten." 

The "Variations," he added, "is an incredibly affectionate tribute to the man and to his muse."

Runnicles compares the work to Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations," - 14 takes on a theme that all represent individuals in Elgar's life.

"But with Britten," Runnicles said, "each variation represents a different characteristic of one man." Intriguingly, the composer took a theme from a Bridge string quartet, and plays with that throughout in a fashion the Scotsman described as highly satisfying.

"It’s typical, early Britten," Runnicles said, "and thus precociously idiomatic for the strings."

He added, "For this young composer to have mastered all the possibilities of string instruments and what they can do – I think it’s a masterwork. And substantial."

You might wonder in such a peripatetic life where Runnicles actually hangs his hat. The conductor and his wife live in Berlin, where he's in residence about half the year. They also own a house in Jackson Hole.

Like so many of us, the coronavirus has reshaped how Runnicles spends much of his free time.

"I do a great deal of piano playing now," he said, which represents a return to his original vocation before conducting found him.

"I haven’t done this much piano since I was a student," he added, noting he's been working on Shubert and Beethoven sonatas.

"I love the fact that I’ve gotten my chops  back," Runnicles said, and then he laughed again. "We all look for silver linings, don't we?"

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'Runnicles Conducts Britten' - Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward, Detroit

Streaming at 7:30 p.m. tonight & Fri.

Tickets: $12 at

(313) 576-6111