Runnicles extends stay with ASO

At a time in his conducting career when he’s saying some goodbyes and hellos, Donald Runnicles will be staying in a familiar role with thein Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

The ASO announced Wednesday that the contract of its principal guest conductor has been extended a year, through the 2011-12 season.

Runnicles, who concluded a 17-year music directorship at the San Francisco Opera last year[09], recently began leading Berlin’s Deutsche Oper[CQ] as well as Glasgow’s BBC Scottish Orchestra.

The changes mean that the 55-year-old Scottish-born, German-trained conductor, 55, will continue his Atlanta affiliation while transitioning from his longtime base in San Francisco to Europe.

"I'm thrilled about this relationship in Atlanta, and thrilled that the orchestra is eager to have that relationship continue," Runnicles told tThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview. "Yes, logistically it’s a little harder, being across the pond, so to speak. But where there’s a will there's a way, and there’s enormous will to make this work."

Runnicles’ tenure with the Atlanta orchestra began in the 2001-02 season, at the same time as music director Robert Spano, meaning both conductors are in their ninth seasons with the orchestra. Spano's contract extends through 2013-14.

The ASO could be seen as being in a time of transition, with the recent departure of longtime president and CEO Allison Vulgamore, who hired both maestros and is now leading the Philadelphia Orchestra., and pPlans for a new concert hall for the symphony also were put on hold until the economy improves. But while Runnicles acknowledges that "none of us are immune to what’s going on economically in this country," he saidfeels the ASO is stable.

"I’d like to think that the leadership of this organization, particularly the musical leadership, goes from strength to strength," he said. "My working relationship with Robert is quite unique and we have just the greatest time working with one another, so I saw no reason to call a halt."

Runnicles says he and Spano marvel that they're closing in on a decade with the ASO, as the time has gone quickly while the group's reputation has risen.

"To invest 10 years in any orchestra, I think, is a sign of progress," he said. "Yet somehow you feel as if you’re just really beginning to get under the surface."

Runnicles, who will continue to lead the ASO for four weeks each season through 2011-12, plans to appear as a guest conductor with the orchestra for two weeks annually after his contract ends.

The principal guest conductor is still reveling from the December experience of leading the ASO Chorus in Berlin, where the 200 singers performed Brahms' "A German Requiem" with the esteemed Berlin Philharmonic.

"I’m enormously proud of the chorus as they should be enormously proud of themselves," he said. "I think it’s a further feather in the cap of Atlanta, quite frankly, something which the community should be quite proud."

In this new year, with his new responsibilities, the pace of his globe-trotting will quicken, and he was asked what he plans to do with those extra frequent-flier miles.

"I’m going to whisk my beloved partner off to some secluded beach somewhere," he said with a chuckle and no hesitation.