“Throwback” looks forward

Ryan Wigglesworth, newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, talks to Keith Bruce about his multi-disciplinary life and plans for the future.

The man who will take over from Thomas Dausgaard as Chief Conductor of the BBC SSO in September is better acquainted with the orchestra than some will immediately recognise.

“I’ve been working on and off with the orchestra for quite a number of years,” he says. “It is probably ten years since my first concert, which was a Shakespeare-inspired programme with Korngold and Berlioz. Then we did a residency at Aldeburgh with a couple of concerts covering a vast amount of music, I remember.

“And during lockdown we had the chance to work together a few times in the studio doing Mozart and Mendelssohn, and culminating in what was the first concert back in front of a small audience in the Royal Concert Hall when we performed Elgar 1. It was so wonderful to play repertoire on that scale again, even although everyone was distanced.”

It is however the wide range of Wigglesworth’s practice as a musician that makes his appointment more unusual. He has spoken before of his “core business” being as a composer, and he has been a prolific one in recent years, with an acclaimed opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for ENO, orchestral pieces for the Royal Concertgebouw, Cleveland and BBC Symphony, and songs for some of the UK’s best-loved voices. He is also a virtuoso pianist and accompanist, while his conducting work has included a three-year stint as Principal Guest of the Halle.

Composer/conductors can often be found in Associate orchestral posts, with Matthias Pintscher a notable recent example at the SSO, but rarely occupy the Chief seat.

“I suppose I am a throwback,” he says. “I don’t think this was an issue before the 20th century, when these jobs became, for whatever reason, a bit more specialised.

“Before that you were just a musician, and I suppose that’s how I see it. I can’t separate the different strands really. I’m learning so much about conducting when I compose and vice-versa. If I am learning a new work, I can’t but take it apart with the eyes of a composer – I want to know how it is built.

“It is just the way the world has gone: ever-increasing specialisation has been the trend in pretty much every walk of life.”

And while new music will certainly be part of his plans for the BBC Scottish, Wigglesworth’s musical hinterland goes back to Early Music.

“I am from a non-musical family – my dad was a butcher – but somehow I became a chorister in Sheffield and that was the start of it all. Singing has remained at the core of what I do; I love working in opera and I love working with singers. Renaissance polyphony goes so deep, and it is something I think about a lot. Very quickly, I gravitated towards the organ and I was an organ scholar at university and as a result of that was very involved with period instrument groups, playing continuo.

“I went to the Guildhall after university but then went back to university to do some post-grad. In that period I was performing lots of Bach and Handel and I was very grateful to have had the experience of working with period instruments, even if it something I regretfully don’t get to do much these days. Having had that experience, it naturally informs my approach to music of the classical era that I do get to do with symphony orchestras.

“It is particularly exciting to me that the SSO has such a strong track record in that repertoire having had a relationship with the likes of Andrew Manze. It is an almost uniquely versatile orchestra with the experience of performing so much large scale Wagner and Mahler with Donald Runnicles, and developing a sound in that late Romantic repertoire, as well as their brilliance in performing music that was written yesterday.

“It is a world-class orchestra but an orchestra that is so at home in very different repertoire.”

“Having started with Baroque and been a composer involved with new music, I have come towards the centre. I strongly believe that for the health of an orchestra we must be regularly playing the music of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss. It is so good to work on sound in that repertoire. That’s when the symphony orchestra became fully defined and it holds epic challenges.

“Late Bruckner, as an interpreter, is still a great challenge because, unlike Mahler, the work isn’t done for you. Mahler was a supreme practical musician, but in Bruckner there are so many decisions to be made, and that’s why it is so endlessly fascinating.

“I am hopeful that we can have a first season that allows myself and the orchestra to dip our toes into lots of different things. It is a period when we will be learning a lot about each other, and I hope there is the opportunity and space to start to develop that identity across a number of areas.

“Initially, when it comes to new music I see my job as identifying those composers that will be interesting for the orchestra and our audiences, and developing long-term relationships with those composers. I want to create a family of composers who feel ‘in residence’ and have more than one project over a certain amount of time.”

There will be an early opportunity to hear Wigglesworth the soloist when he direct a Mozart concerto from the piano in an afternoon concert that also includes the world premiere of a new work by Jorg Widmann and Sibelius Symphony No 4.

“In May, when I come to play and direct some Mozart, it will be wonderful to be able to have a different kind of relationship with the orchestra. It allows us the freedom to simply listen to one another and to begin to develop the telepathy that is so important in the relationship between conductor and orchestra; the more that can be unsaid the better.”

Soprano Katherine Broderick

More imminently, the Chief Conductor Designate is on the podium for the SSO’s contribution to Sunday’s celebration of the BBC’s centenary, with his own Five Waltzes sitting alongside music of the 1920s by Weill, Strauss and Berg.

“The opportunity to think about music from the early 20s when so much was going on was a wonderful challenge,” he says. “The Scenes from Wozzeck was so important to the early days of the BBC and it’s music that is dear to my heart.”

His own work in the programme began as a piano piece before become a duo with violist Lawrence Power. Composed to mark the birth of his first child, Five Waltzes has now grown once again.

“It is now orchestrated for winds and lower strings, and slightly expanded from the piano and viola version. I am very excited to do it with Scott Dickinson in such a mixed programme.”

Less than a month later, a song cycle Wigglesworth has written to mark the more recent birth of his daughter, Vignettes de Jules Renard, will have its world premiere at the Barbican, sung by baritone Roderick Williams, alongside works by Faure, Ravel and Judith Weir.

Those pieces come from a time that was fruitful in different ways for Wigglesworth.

“Our first baby was born at the start of lockdown, so I was able to see him every day for the first year of his life. And the second one was born two weeks ago, so in that sense it has been a busy time!

“It was also a time when a lot of creative artists found it extremely difficult to write, or to paint, because it was such an unreal period. Looking back at it now, from this short distance, it did come with huge benefits as well as being such a hard time for so many people.

“For us creative types there was a bit of space to think, and get back to first principles. I played the piano a lot, which is something I hadn’t been able to do – to be able to play the Bach 48 every day was cathartic! And we put on little concerts in our village in Oxfordshire when my wife and I invited musician friends like Stephen Hough and Mark Padmore.”

With his Glasgow appointment, however, Wigglesworth is already thinking in terms of his children getting to know Scotland.

“I want my family to feel at home here, and it not just be a place where I come to rehearse and do a concert.

“I’ve just finished quite a big chorus and orchestra piece which will be premiered by Ed Gardner and his Bergen orchestra in April, and the immediate focus is on the job here. There’s been a series of orchestral projects as a composer going back some years now, and I think I am going to enjoy taking a step back from that, maybe writing a bit of chamber music, but the focus is on creating a home here.

“There’s so much I am interested in learning about – like the orchestra’s work in Campbeltown and those sort of residencies where we can identify a community and bring something to really make a difference. I want to learn about all of the orchestra’s audiences, at the Music Hall in Aberdeen, the Usher Hall and Perth Concert Hall.

“I have worked in many of the halls and I adore the country, but the process is never-ending. That’s a hugely exciting prospect and it is something I’ve been longing for. That sense of belonging and a place where I can focus my energies.”

Ryan Wigglesworth conducts the BBC SSO on Sunday February 13 in Glasgow’s City Halls. The concert, with soloists Katherine Broderick (soprano) and Scott Dickinson (viola) is part of the BBC 100 celebrations and broadcast live on Radio 3.

Portrait of Ryan Wigglesworth copyright BBC and Gordon Burniston