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Meet the Maestro: Sir Donald Runnicles live in Sydney
Meet the Maestro: Sir Donald Runnicles live in Sydney,Sydney Symphony Orchestra welcomes one of the world’s greatest conductors to make music that inspires.

Meet the Maestro: Sir Donald Runnicles live in Sydney

For world-renowned conductor Sir Donald Runnicles, live performance is magic in the making.

Talking to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the maestro says it best: “It’s an incredible blessing when a lot of people are together and experiencing a live orchestra concert. And the moment that last chord has died away, it is gone.”

Sydneysiders have a unique chance to witness one of the greatest conductors in the globe.

Sydneysiders have a unique chance to witness one of the greatest conductors in the globe.Credit:Sydney Symphony Orchestra

“It is a communion, where people are sitting together, enjoying the great masterworks. And that is what has always inspired me, the process of making music with and for people.”

Runnicles joined the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as its first-ever Principal Guest Conductor, gifting Sydneysiders and visiting music lovers a unique chance to witness one of the greatest conductors in the globe.

Two unmissable concerts

This April, Runnicles conducts two concerts tied thematically, even if composed in different world contexts. There’s the lush and triumphant Brahms Second Symphony, a lyrical, joyous symphony from 1887, and Edward Elgar’s 1919 Cello Concerto, an achingly beautiful and cathartic response to the horrors of World War I that ends optimistically, looking forward to the future. Both, in their own way, express an exuberant passion, one of resilient joy — a feeling all the more relevant in 2023.

“In putting together orchestral programs, I am looking for pieces that go well together, that shine off one another,” says Runnicles. “I am also looking for music that forms a journey for the audience. I am drawn to the music of composers who are, through their music, seeking to give answers to questions we all have.”

The symphony is paired with Idyllium, a contemporary work inspired by Brahms by German composer Detlev Glanert, as well as Schumann’s tender and well-

known Piano Concerto, as performed by one of Australia’s finest pianists, Andrea Lam.

“Sir Donald is most famous for his opera work and while Brahms didn’t write opera, his music certainly requires us to ‘sing’,” says Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Concertmaster, Andrew Haveron. “Whether conducting real singers or instrumental ones, Runnicles’ grasp of breath and phrasing inspires us to achieve seemingly impossible results.”

Conductor Sir Donald Runnicles.

Conductor Sir Donald Runnicles.Credit:Sydney Symphony Orchestra

And Elgar’s Cello Concerto, performed by German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, is paired with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, a powerful reaction to Stalinism that ends in a spirited sense of freedom. Haveron is equally excited by both concerts, noting that the Orchestra has been trying to perform the Tenth with Runnicles since 2020.

“Shostakovich’s music needs a different accent and purpose altogether,” says Haveron. “It can be enjoyed on many different levels – it makes an incredible noise no matter how much you know about its whys and wherefores. No doubt Donald will bring his incredible charisma and energy to the performances.”

Working in harmony

The Orchestra is particularly excited by the concerts, says Haveron, as it’s a chance to work with an all-time great.

“Sir Donald is universally loved by all the musicians for several reasons,” he says. “I should first mention his wonderful approach to the work we do; his rehearsal technique, speaking manner, inspiration, patience and trust in us all make the hours trip by in a flash.”

For Haveron personally, the incomparable joy of working with Runnicles comes down to not any one specific technical skill (though that helps, of course), but what the Scot purposefully doesn’t offer on stage.

“He has an excellent ‘stick’ technique [referring to the conductors’ baton], but he also knows when to use it – or not,” says Haveron.

“Why would you not use it? Music is about ears and hearing, but a baton is about eyes and synchronisation. Sometimes musicians can rely too much on our eyes and stop using our ears quite as actively. That’s when Donald can decide to become a little less clear, a deliberate ploy to get us to listen to each other and grow our ensemble from within. That’s when true magic happens.”

And the excitement is mutual. While currently the General Music Director of Deutsche Oper Berlin, one of the world’s greatest opera houses, the Music Director of the annual Grand Teton Music Festival, the Principal Guest Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Conductor Emeritus of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Runnicles notes Sydney remains a highlight of his calendar, having steadily worked with the Orchestra since 2000.

“It is enormously fulfilling for any conductor to have a long-standing relationship with an orchestra, which deepens [over time],” he says. “It is a thrill to be here in Sydney – it is one of my favourite orchestras, and to be their Principal Guest means a great deal.”

Don’t miss Donald Runnicles Conducts Brahms 2, 14–16 April at the Sydney Opera House, and Elgar’s Cello Concerto, 19–22 April at the Sydney Opera House. Book now here.