The fortunes of British conductor Edward Gardner keep rising. Music director of the English National Opera from 2006 to 2015, he continues to make guest-conducting debuts with major orchestras across Europe and North America, including the New York Philharmonic in April.
Anchoring that program was Béla Bartók’s famed Concerto for Orchestra (1943). “Mr. Gardner’s well-judged, never-overblown performance showed a Philharmonic in fine fettle in this interregnum season before Jaap van Zweden takes over as music director in the fall,” wrote music critic James R. Oestreich in the New York Times.
Gardner returns Dec. 6-8 and 11 for his subscription series debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, after first conducting the ensemble in July 2017 at the Ravinia Festival. “You only have so much time with the orchestra to get to know each other, but they were wonderful,” he said. “They are so virtuosic and flexible. We did Enigma Variations and Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with [Yefim] ‘Fima’ Bronfman, and I had a ball, actually. It’s a lovely atmosphere up at Ravinia — obviously completely different than playing downtown Chicago.”
Culminating his December CSO program will be Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable), which the Danish composer wrote against the backdrop of World War I. The performance is part of the orchestra’s season-long commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the WWI Armstice. “It’s a piece I’m really passionate about,” Gardner said. “Nielsen is, yes, Scandinavian but [he has an] individual musical language, and this extraordinary life force that is in that piece I find completely intoxicating. That’s the centerpiece of this program really, and I know this orchestra will play it extraordinarily.”
Also on the program will be Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, written in 1948 when the composer was 84 and published after his death. He first did a setting of Joseph von Eichendorff’s poem, Im Abendrot (At Sunset), and then set three poems by Hermann Hesse: Früling (Spring), September and Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep). Strauss’ friend Ernst Roth, chief editor for the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, grouped the four songs and gave them the title that audiences know today. “It hasn’t been done in the near past, so it’s a nice opportunity to get to do that,” Gardner said. Serving as soloist will be soprano Erin Wall, a CSO favorite and alumna of the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s artist-development program.
Opening the program will be Richard Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi. “It’s a wonderful overture, and it’s not often played,” Gardner said. “Yes, it’s early Wagner, and yes, it has a little bit of Italian opera in it, but it’s glorious as a piece of music. And you see the possibility of music that comes after it, not only Wagner’s own but also Strauss so many years later.”
Gardner has served as chief conductor of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic since 2015, and he continues to build on the international reputation that this ensemble has attained under such past leaders as Andrew Litton. Although the city has a population of less than 300,000, the orchestra has earned the esteem of ensembles in much larger locales in large part because of its extensive recording and touring schedules. The group has performed at the Edinburgh Festival and London’s Proms the last two years and will appear in Austria and Germany in 2019.
“It would be so easy to just to stay in our wonderful city and play our concerts on Thursdays and Fridays and just do it for ourselves,” Gardner said. “But there is a story and a message that needs to get out, I believe passionately, from that wonderful group of musicians. So it’s become really part of our diet every year to do some touring.”
In January, Gardner will mark another milestone he conducts his first production at London’s Royal Opera House: a new realization of Leoš Janáček’s 20th-century masterwork Káťa Kabanová. “Having been music director at the English National Opera for all that time, I couldn’t go work in Covent Garden,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been right. I wouldn’t have been comfortable even if I had been asked. So now, it’s a new chapter in my life, and it will be really fun to get to know that company.”