Donald Runnicles is concurrently the General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB), Chief Conductor of BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC SSO), and Music Director of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson, Wyoming, USA. Mr. Runnicles is also Principal Guest Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO). His career can be characterized by close, enduring and extensive relationships with a number of opera companies and orchestras; and his musical identity is defined by the quality of his performances which are strongly centered in grand romantic opera and symphonic repertory of the late 19th and 20th centuries, and their traditions around which the current opera and symphony institutions were built.
Mr. Runnicles’ 2009 appointment to the DOB joined one of today’s leading Wagnerian conductors to a premiere repertory opera company with a long and grand Wagnerian history, which in 2012-2013 celebrates its centennial. As GMD, Mr. Runnicles has primary responsibility for the musical forces of this historic company which produces on average twenty five productions and more than two hundred performances per season. This season, Mr. Runnicles himself will lead forty performances spread over eight titles and concerts, including new productions of Wagner’s Parsifal by German film director Philipp Stölzl, and David Alden’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and revival performances of Puccini’s Tosca, Wagner’s Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and Verdi’s Otello.
Mr. Runnicles literally returned home to take up the post as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC SSO). Born and raised in Edinburgh, he conducts five of the BBC SSO’s main series programs in the orchestra’s Glasgow home, and gives concerts elsewhere throughout Scotland and northern England. He also leads the BBC SSO in two programs at the London Proms each summer, and conducts them for the Edinburgh International Festival; Scotland’s premiere international music and theatre festival. Through its BBC Radio 3 broadcasts, commercially released recordings on the Hyperion label, and acclaimed concerts at home and on tour, “The BBC SSO / Runnicles” has become one of the best known and most successful conductor/orchestra partnerships in the United Kingdom.
His association with the ASO began with a guest engagement in 1999, and quickly matured into an abiding musical relationship of increasing accomplishment and depth. The ASO conferred upon him the title, “Principal Guest Conductor” in 2001 and, together with ASO music director Robert Spano who began the same year, they began an era for the ASO defined by a rare symbiotic partnership, and musical growth that the ASO had not seen since the era of Robert Shaw. He spends two to three weeks each season with the ASO, and after a dozen years of making music together, has explored all corners of symphonic and choral repertory. He has been music director since 2005 of the Grand Teton Music Festival, a symphonic festival which draws its musicians from amongst many of North America’s greatest orchestras to the thrilling natural beauty of the Grand Tetons. He leads four of the festival’s seven orchestra weeks, and moreover directs and participates as pianist in the many chamber concerts, recitals and other activities the festival offers to its local public and tourists who flock to Jackson and nearby Yellowstone Park each summer.
Beyond his annual BBC SSO, Atlanta and Grand Teton commitments, Mr. Runnicles is active in symphonic repertoire and finds time to guest conduct with some of the world’s finest symphony orchestras. Not peripatetic by nature, he finds time to maintain regular guest relationships with the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestra. This season, he conducts two subscription weeks in Philadelphia, and also leads the orchestra on tour in China in June 2013, marking the 40th anniversary of its 1973 inaugural visit. A return guest engagement to the NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg rounds out a full 12-13 season.
For seventeen seasons, Mr. Runnicles was Music Director of the San Francisco Opera (1992-2008), having unexpectedly won the job after conducting two Wagner Ring cycles due to the withdrawal of a conducting colleague in 1990. During his long tenure, he led more than sixty productions which included company, national and indeed international highlights such as the world premieres of John Adams’ Dr. Atomic and Conrad Sousa’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, and the U.S. premieres of Olivier Messiaen’sSaint François d’Assise and AribertReimann’sLear. Mr. Runnicles and the SF Opera made several commercial CD and DVD recordings and were seen often on national and international television. At the close of his tenure, he was given the San Francisco Opera Medal, the Company’s highest honor, previously given to luminaries such as Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, Plácido Domingo and Sir Charles Mackerras. Mr. Runnicles last returned to the San Francisco Opera in June 2011 to lead Francesca Zambello’s new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, returning to the work and circumstance which launched his relationship to the company two decades earlier.
Mr. Runnicles was born in Edinburgh and was educated there and at Cambridge. Following a season with the London Opera Centre, he began his career in Mannheim, Germany as repetiteur, and spent summers assisting in Bayreuth where he further honed and explored his Wagnerian disposition, and guesting throughout the German repertory theaters and orchestras. He made his North American debut in 1988 conducting Berg’s Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera, jumping in for an indisposed James Levine; in 1989 became General Music Director in Freiburg, Germany for three years, and to which he returned in 2010 to help honor and celebrate the Freiburg orchestra’s centennial. In 1990, after two Ring cycles at San Francisco Opera, he was asked to be its Music Director, and began the appointment two years later. Over the last two decades he has conducted at leading international opera houses, orchestras, and summer festivals including Bayreuth, Salzburg, Glyndebourne, Tanglewood and Ravinia. Long associated with the city of Vienna, he conducted many titles and performances for the city’s various theaters including new productions of Billy Budd and Die Tote Stadt at the Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna premieres of The Fiery Angel and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Volksoper, and most recently a new and acclaimed Vienna premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice for the Theater an der Wien.
He recently recorded a disc of Wagner arias with Jonas Kaufmann and the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra for Decca Classics – to be released in 2013. Mr. Runnicles’ recordings with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra include a critically acclaimed concert disc with soprano Christine Brewer singing Strauss and Wagner;Mozart’s Requiem, Orff’s CarminaBurana, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The discography also contains a live recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde released in 2007 by Warner Classics, with Christine Brewer and John Treleaven and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (London); Britten’s Billy Budd with Bo Skovhus, Neil Shicoff and the Vienna State Opera; a GRAMMY-nominated recital of German Romantic opera arias with tenor Ben Heppner; and several discs on the Teldec label including Wagner Ring excerpts with the Dresden Staatskapelle; Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel; Bellini’s I Capuleti e iMontecchi; and for SONY, a disc with soprano Jane Eaglen of works by Strauss, Wagner and Berg.
Among the awards bestowed upon him are the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and honorary degrees from Edinburgh University, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, an honorary doctorate from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.