The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra yesterday pulled off a coup by appointing Donald Runnicles, one of the world's leading conductors, as its new chief conductor from 2009.

Mr Runnicles, 53, is an Edinburgh-born musician who has made a superstar career for himself in the US and with leading music organisations in Europe.

He will replace Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov, who steps down from his post in 2009.

He is currently music director of San Francisco Opera and principal guest conductor at Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He also works with Berlin Philharmonic.

Mr Runnicles runs a prestigious festival in Wyoming, appears regularly at the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals, and is in constant demand by the world's leading opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Vienna State Opera.

He has signed a three-year contract with the BBC SSO that will bring him to Scotland for a minimum of eight weeks each season.

His remit will include the full repertoire, recordings, engagements at the Edinburgh Festival, the London Proms, and throughout Scotland on the SSO's touring circuit.

His first appearance with the BBC SSO following his appointment will take place next April in Glasgow, where he will conduct a programme to include James MacMillan's Third Symphony.

The conductor's relationship with the SSO extends back to 2001, when they first appeared together at the Edinburgh Festival. The standard of performances were clear indicators of a special chemistry within the team.

Mr Runnicles confirmed that chemistry yesterday: "The energy, enthusiasm and supreme musicianship of these terrific musicians is unrivalled.

"I'm privileged to have made music with them over the past five years and am privileged to embrace the future at the helm of the SSO."

The BBC was cock-a-hoop at securing the services of a Scot less well-known in his native land than anywhere else in the music world. Gavin Reid, director of the BBC SSO, said: "We are absolutely thrilled that Donald is to become our new chief conductor. We have a wonderful relationship and are set for a truly exciting future."

Donald Runnicles was educated at George Watson's in Edinburgh and then at Cambridge. Opera was his first love. His "seminal moment" was hearing Sir Alexander Gibson conducting Wagner's Ring in Glasgow in 1971.

He worked his way into the profession by training in German opera houses. He exploded into the limelight in 1988 when he took over a performance of Berg's opera Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera at short notice. Since then his career has gone stellar.

He remained little known in the UK until 16 years ago, when Sir Brian McMaster brought him over from the US to conduct in the director's first festival programme.

A real coup for classical music fans

Comment by Michael Tumelty
NOBODY in their wildest dreams could have imagined Donald Runnicles returning to Scotland. He is a classic case of the musician neglected in his own land who goes off and makes his fortune elsewhere.

Even when Sir Brian McMaster brought him over from the US 16 years ago, where, by then, he was firmly established, UK audiences didn't really know who he was. Sir Brian put Runnicles together with the BBC SSO and the chemistry sparked.

The big question is: why is he coming back? He doesn't need the work. He certainly doesn't need the money.

Whatever the answer, the appointment is dynamite. It will set the cat among the pigeons in Scotland, where Stephane Deneve at the RSNO is into his third year and pulling in the crowds, while the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has its own new man, Olari Elts, who takes over as principal guest conductor this week.