FOR one evening at least, Inverness will be part of the old Austrian empire thanks to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and an evening dedicated to one of the world’s great musical cities — Vienna.
Led by BBC SSO chief conductor Donald Runnicles, who is making his first ever visit to Inverness, the evening includes music from Berg and Schubert as well as two of the best known pieces to have emerged from the city, Johann Strauss’s "On The Beautiful Blue Danube" and the mighty Beethoven’s "Fifth Symphony".
"The connection between the composers is the imperial city, but also there are musical ties there," he said.
"There is Alban Berg’s love of the waltz, the three/four metre of Schubert which Anton Webern orchestrated — it’s really been programmed to give the audience a cross-section of the astonishing creative giants that once dwelled in that city including — as some might argue — the greatest creative giant of them all, Ludwig van Beethoven."
It was Beethoven’s "Fifth" which was the starting point for the programme and like a chef choosing a good menu, Edinburgh-born Runnicles then had to decide what would complement it, among them less well known pieces such as Webern’s arrangement of Schubert’s "Six German Dances".
However, though Beethoven’s "Fifth" is certainly among the best known classical works, Runnicles says he is always struck by how few people have heard it played live. In contrast, the orchestra will be very familiar with the piece, so for Runnicles and his musicians the challenge is in approaching the work as if for the first time.
"One can become too familiar and I think one always has to come to these great works with the feeling of what it was like when you heard it for the very first time," he said.
"Great books you can read a book a number of times and every time there is something new that will leap out at you. Similarly with these great immortal works of art. There’s not a right and a wrong, it’s very much your own interpretation and ours is to approach it with humility and excitement."
Performing one of these great works is always special, Runnicles agreed.
"There’s a visceral thrill for me personally, conducting the work, and I’m sure it’s the same for the orchestra," he said.
"It’s such a concise, intense work. There’s not a redundant note there — it’s all muscle, there’s no fat. That, in turn inspires you to perform at your best. It’s really a physical thrill to be conducting that music."
Saturday’s concert will be attempting to capture widely varying moods of Viennese music from the powerful Beethoven symphony, which Runnicles sees as "rushing at you like a bull from a pen", to the reflective and autobiographical Berg violin concerto played by soloist Julian Rachlin and the "gorgeous, glorious" music of "The Blue Danube" which serves as Runnicles’ invitation to the audience to join him on a musical journey to Vienna.
"The composers we’ve chosen have all experienced the city at different times socially, culturally and politically," he pointed out.
"The storm clouds gathering over Vienna in the 1930s were not lost on Alban Berg, which is one of the reasons why he seeks solace in the past."
These days Runnicles divides his time between Scotland and another of Europe’s great musical cities in Berlin, where he is musical director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, a move that came after 17 years as music director and principal conductor of the San Francisco Opera.
"A city is reflected in its culture and every city is different," he said.
"San Francisco is a very beautiful city and if you are performing a piece that is a little less well known, this might be first time the audience is hearing it. In the European capitals the culture has been around for many more centuries, therefore one’s approach as a performer, but also your perspective as an audience member, is very different. Orchestras similarly, are different in many ways and reflect, geographically, where they are situated.
"Berlin is very exciting and momentous and I’m working with one of the oldest institutions which has a terrific reputation for a certain repertoire, but if you put something different in front of them — something American or as I did last month, Benjamin Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’, which hadn’t been performed on stage there since 1947 — it is akin to a foreign language. If you put it in front of a British orchestra, they would read it as if it was ABC, yet if you give them the big romantic German repertoire, it takes a while to find the right sound. That’s what keeps it lively and exciting for me."
For Runnicles, a conductor in demand around the world, becoming involved with the BBC SSO was not down to patriotism, he points out.
"I fell in love with the orchestra and took on the role because it is a great orchestra, not because it’s in Scotland," he said.
"It’s good to be back, don’t get me wrong, but that was most certainly not the reason I took it on."
• Donald Runnicles conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Empire Theatre, Eden Court, on Saturday 2nd February from 8pm.
The BBC SSO is also hosting a workshop inspired by Beethoven’s "Fifth" at Eden Court on Sunday at 12.30pm.
For more information see bbc.oc.uk/bbcsso or email email@example.com
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Inverness programme:
Johann Strauss (son) Waltz: On the Beautiful Blue Danube
Berg: Violin Concerto
Schubert arr. Webern: Six German Dances
Beethoven: Symphony No.5
Soloist: Julian Rachlin, violin.
The concert will be recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.