As major international conducting posts open in the next few years, don’t be surprised to find Edward Gardner listed among the candidates. The British maestro served as music director of the English National Opera from 2007 through 2015, when he became chief conductor of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic. In addition, he has made more than 20 recordings, including a well-received all-Elgar album released in April with the BBC Symphony that was named the orchestral choice of the month in the July issue of BBC Music Magazine.
“Reviewing Vasily Petrenko’s Elgar First Symphony two years ago, I thought it was unlikely to be beaten for a long time,” wrote music critic Stephen Johnson. “After hearing Edward Gardner’s version, I’m feeling slightly chastened. Gardner’s sound is less opulent and rounded: you’re more aware of striving or singing lines in his textures, sometimes contending, sometimes deliciously interacting. But this more complex, multi-faceted, subtly changeable Elgar feels just that little bit truer.”
Gardner will bring his insightful, energetic brand of conducting to the Ravinia Festival on July 18 when he leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time, an opportunity that he describes as a “great treat.” Because he focused on opera early in his career, there are still major orchestras like the CSO that he is just now conducting for the first time. “I have admired the Chicago Symphony so much from concerts I’ve been to,” he said. “I just can’t wait.”
His Ravinia program will consist of two well-known works: Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with famed soloist Yefim Bronfman and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, one of the English composer’s most popular works. “Elgar and Brahms go so well together,” Gardner said. “It’s a complete masterpiece — the Enigma Variations. I know the orchestra knows it well, so it should just be fun to do it.”
In 2006, when Gardner was just 31, he was appointed music director of the English National Opera, a huge and surprising post for a conductor still in the formative stages of his career. But Gardner, who sang as a chorister at the Gloucester Cathedral as a youngster, is no ordinary talent. He became a repetiteur (an accompanist and vocal coach) at the Salzburg Festival when he was still a student at the Royal Academy of Music. Three years after his graduation in 2000, he had already been named music director of Glyndebourne on Tour, the touring arm of England’s celebrated summer Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
“I loved it,” Gardner said of his ENO tenure, “and I love the company. It does incredibly inventive work, and I think what we did with the chorus and orchestra in that period I’ll always be proud of for the rest of my life, culminating in some huge shows like the Peter Grimes or the Meistersinger that we did. They are still some of the proudest performances I’ve done. The funding situation in our country is tight, and there are issues with how to exist to with reduced funding at the moment, which the company is grappling with. But it’s a great company. It’s filled with the most remarkable people, and I’m sure they are going to come through it.”
From 2010 through 2016, Gardner served as principal guest conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony, where conductor Simon Rattle made his name. In 2013, he was simultaneously named principal guest conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic and the orchestra’s chief conductor starting in the 2015-16 season. His initial contract has since been extended through 2021.
Gardner praised the orchestra’s intrepid spirit, its willingness to take on a wide mix of repertoire and its constant desire to improve. “It’s been two seasons [as chief conductor], and I was doing a lot with them in the three years before,” he said. “So we really feel like we are together now. We get each other, and we know what makes the other half tick. It’s like a good marriage.”
Earlier this year, he led the orchestra on a tour of Great Britain, and they will return to the road Aug. 12-13 for back-to-back performances at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. The second concert will include the orchestra’s chorus in a full-length concert version of Britten’s Peter Grimes, with Australian tenor Stuart Skelton in the title role. “That will be just a few weeks after I’m in Chicago, so that’s really on my mind,” Gardner said. “It’s one of the great festivals of the world. To take my orchestra there, I’m going to be hugely proud.”
The conductor has been a prolific recording artist, and he feels more confident than ever in that realm. “I know what the pieces are that I should do and want to do,” he said. “So it’s great. It’s a big part of what I do.” He signed an exclusive recording contract with Chandos in 2009, and he has released 18 albums on the label, including recent ones with the Bergen Philharmonic. They include a 2016 release featuring Arnold Schoenberg’s Guerrelieder and another highlighted by Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass that was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2017.
With his post in Bergen and additional guest conducting engagements, Gardner has put more of an emphasis on the symphonic realm in recent years. But he has been careful to balance those concerts with at least two significant operatic productions a year. He returned, for example, to New York’s Metropolitan Opera in February for a production of Werther. “Massenet’s lush scores can easily wilt,” wrote music critic Zachary Woolfe in the New York Times, “but Edward Gardner led a performance that was sumptuous without ever slogging — not grandly imposing but straightforward and sincere. Lyrical expansion never stinted on forward-moving vigor, right up to the slashing grimaces in the low strings at the very end.”
The conductor made his debut with Lyric Opera of Chicago in February 2016, leading a revival of Richard Strauss’ most popular stage work, Der Rosenkavalier, and gaining positive reviews in the process. “I got on incredibly well with the company,” Gardner said. “I’d be really happy to come back with the right project. We’re talking and I’m sure that something that will happen in the future.”
It has only been two years since Gardner left the English National Opera, but he acknowledges that he can already envision himself as music director of another opera company. “I think that is sort of in my blood,” he said. “Some time down the line, I would like to do that again. Those jobs are huge, and you’ve got to be ready for them. And it’s good to have a break between them. But I really feel that in the future, I’m going to want that again, absolutely.”
TOP: Edward Gardner leads the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. | Photo courtesy of the BPO