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Every time we say goodbye – Edward Gardner talks to John Allison

There’s something about Mahler’s massive symphonies, especially those with chorus, that speak of farewell. For Edward Gardner, the optimism of the gargantuan Eighth Symphony — sometimes dubbed the Symphony of a Thousand — is his choice of leave-taking from the Bergen Philharmonic after almost a decade at the helm. 

His predecessor, Andrew Litton, chose Mahler’s Third (calling it ‘the ultimate goodbye piece’) for his valedictory concert in 2015. Just as Litton wasn’t really saying goodbye to Bergen, merely relinquishing the top job, so Gardner already has plans to be back: yet there is no mistaking either the bittersweet emotions conjured up by Mahler in these works or the way in which these concerts involving the biggest possible forces represent a great coming together of musical colleagues and friends.

An intense moment during this week's general rehearsal for Mahler 8. Photo: Tarjei Hummelsund

The vocal aspect is also an especially important one for Gardner, who — having shared conducting duties with Litton at the Bergen Philharmonic’s 250th anniversary gala in October 2015 — officially launched his tenure in December 2015 with Schoenberg’s monumental Gurrelieder, a work of similar dimensions to Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. ‘It was probably foolhardy to start with that Schoenberg,’ Gardner now jokes, ‘but putting it at one end of my tenure and Mahler 8 at the other feels extraordinary to me in a good way. These are my bookends. These are incredibly significant works, milestones in musical history. The choral world is so close to me, and since we have such outstanding choruses in Bergen — as our recent Brahms Requiem showed again — it would be unthinkable for me to not include them in such a celebration.’

The Bergen choruses in Parsifal in 2023. Photo: Lars Svenkerud

Having started his musical career as a child chorister in Gloucester Cathedral and gone through the famous choral foundations of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, Gardner quite early on staked his career on voices, with his music directorships of Glyndebourne on Tour and subsequently English National Opera. Swapping ENO for the Bergen Philharmonic, he is now heading back to the opera house, as music director of Norwegian National Opera, although he will also maintain an orchestral base as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. Gardner has achieved what appears to be an almost perfect orchestral-operatic balance, the mark of a well-rounded conductor. It’s little wonder that last year’s Parsifal counts as one of Gardner’s favourite Bergen highlights: ‘They just played and sang so brilliantly. It felt effortless.’

Stuart Skelton as Parsifal and Brindley Sherratt as Gurnemanz in 2023. The performance is available at Photo: Lars Svenkerud

Though Mahler composed no operas of his own, he was one of the greatest opera conductors in musical history, and it is impossible to separate his work in the theatre with what he was writing symphonically. Gardner certainly feels the drama inherent in his symphonies. ‘It’s scary to be doing the Eighth Symphony for the first time, because it’s such an individual piece. It’s so of its own world and yet ambiguous even within that world. But I’ve done a lot of work on it and I think I’ve found a path through it. The disjunct between the two parts is tricky to navigate — structurally, Mahler is often less than perfect — but I feel I’ve made friends with it. Sometimes in Mahler the gesture is so much stronger than the structure, but I love this music.’

Ed Gardner conducting Bergen Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in 2021. Photo: Magnus Skrede

It's not just because of his change of job — admittedly a small move geographically — that 2024 feels like such a watershed year for Gardner: he turns 50 in November. ‘I try not to think about some of these things and wait for them to ambush me. Actually, I haven’t even dared to think about leaving Bergen. I really have a problem with it and I can get upset if I think this might be the last time I hear the orchestra do this or that piece. So I’ve done the British thing of brushing this move under the carpet. Turning 50 is the easy bit — I really like where my life is and where my music-making is. It’s a beautiful, positive thing to feel and I know I’m lucky, as not everybody can feel that. I think I still have enough space in my life to grow as a musician. So, yeah, it will feel good to be 50!’

Photo: Lars Svenkerud

Gardner was still in his late 30s when he initially took up the post of principal guest conductor in Bergen, so he regards the musicians here ‘really as family. Bergen has filled a substantial part of my life and career, especially as very early on we started recording together and even touring. But when I think about, some of what we’ve achieved in the last few years is partly because it feels like it’s our final chance to do something together — so in that sense, the timing is probably good. And this period feels like part of a natural life cycle to me. A lot of conductors say that about a decade or so in such a job is optimum, since unless you plan to stay forever the players can start to get restless … This way we’ve avoided an “itchy” end period. I mean, we get on so well. It’s really wonderful. But paradoxically that probably also means it’s the right time to go.’

Photo: Lars Svenkerud

Intending to spend the next year settling into his new post in Oslo, where he is developing exciting operatic plans with Randi Stene, Gardner will be back in Bergen about twice a season thereafter. ‘The coming year will also give the orchestra breathing space!’ But that’s not to say big plans haven’t already been made in Bergen, including more Mahler (the Third Symphony) and a new piano concerto by Ørjan Matre for Leif Ove Andsnes. New Norwegian works have been a constant and important part of the Gardner-Bergen relationship — featuring prominently in their extensive discography together — and at the risk of omitting some names the conductor is happy to mention some of his favourites. ‘For me, Ørjan Matre is very high up. And there’s Rolf Wallin, whose amazing trumpet concerto Fisher King we’ve done on tour. He also wrote Elysium for Norwegian National Opera. Among many other wonderful composers I must mention Henrik Hellstenius and Kristine Tjøgersen, a very interesting voice. Bergen alone is home to a lot of interesting composers. I’ve really relished doing their music and the fact that many of these composers have become friends.’

Rehearsing Beethoven with Leif Ove Andsnes earlier this year. Photo: Tarjei Hummelsund

It's clear that Gardner has immersed himself in all things Norwegian, embracing a way of life quite different to that which he had in London, but he describes his spoken Norwegian as ‘terrible’. Is that because Norwegians’ English is usually so good? ‘Yes, in a sense I haven’t needed to speak Norwegian. My wife just looks at me in a very strange way if I try to say even one word. That sort of holds me back … But I must try to learn more of the language. For a start because in a sense I’m a civil servant, but also really out of respect for the wonderful people around me.’

Norway has become the centre of Gardner’s world to an extent that he could never have foreseen. He even has a step-daughter here — ‘a “bonus daughter”, as they call them in Norway, which feels more positive. The rhythm of life is so different to that in the UK, and although it sounds like a cliché, it is all about the quality of life. When I’m back in London, it’s to work. I no longer have a personal life there. Charlie [his teenage son] is away at boarding school, so I don’t see him every day. It’s a big change. London used to be the city that I played in — you know, went out to things and had fun — but I really don’t do that anymore. Bergen and Oslo have given me a wonderful work-life balance. Musicians aren’t supposed to have a work-life balance, and it’s true that music is life and life is music. But it’s true that I can be more relaxed living in Norway. I can even walk to work in Bergen, and in Oslo my commute is a 15-minute ferry ride. I think that’s pretty cool!’

Photo: Lars Svenkerud

Before he arrived for his first-ever concert in Bergen, Gardner knew little about the city. ‘I had no idea what to expect, other than that after London it would feel like a small city. I hardly knew where it was geographically! But I remember flying in and seeing all those little islands. It was a snowy day — quite rare, actually — in January and the landscape looked unbelievable. But it was hard not to wonder whether the orchestra would be up to anything in such a place. I’m almost embarrassed to recall this, because of course when I turned up for the first rehearsal I was quite shocked at how superb the players were. How specific they were, actually — very much their own orchestra, with their own sensibility and sound. It’s interesting, because the orchestra includes a lot of string players, now in their 50s, who studied together at the Oslo Conservatoire and all sort of descended on Bergen early in their careers. Actually, compared with several Nordic orchestras we’re very international, with something like 35 different countries represented. But when we’re auditioning for new positions, if it’s a dead heat we’ll favour the Norwegian players, as it’s important to keep this identity.’

From the 2018 concert marathon Grieg minute by minute. Photo: Helge Skodvin

Getting the national/international balance just right is important for such a major orchestra as the Bergen Philharmonic, one that needs to serve its own community yet can stand confidently alongside the world’s major ensembles. On tour, foreign promoters shy away from too much Norwegian music — unless it happens to be the Grieg Piano Concerto or an encore from Peer Gynt. Gardner is realistic about this, but wants to make it his mission to promote Norwegian conductors at home. ‘It may seem strange to say so, but Norwegians don’t seem to like Norwegian conductors very much — they don’t like authority from one of their own. I mean, when last did Bergen have a Norwegian music director? In the mid-1980s. It’s true that almost everywhere in the world, conductors succeed more easily if they have the allure of being foreign, but it also helps to have received international attention. So my big message to young conductors here is: don’t stay in Norway. Make a name somewhere else and then it will be easier to come back.’

From Peter Grimes at Royal Festival Hall in 2019

Gardner’s tenure in Bergen will go down in history as one of the notably substantial ones — and certainly longer than Edvard Grieg’s, which lasted just two years. ‘Amazingly, Grieg got annoyed because no one turned up to rehearsal if the weather was nice. He complained that their discipline was terrible. Others were here for longer than me — Andrew [Litton] did 14 years, and Karsten Andersen did one of the big stints [1964-1985]. But I’m proud that my time there has been very solid, and I don’t think of this purely in terms of length of time. It’s the achievements during this period and where we’ve been and what we’ve done. I’m incredibly proud of our opera projects at the Edinburgh Festival and the Royal Festival Hall in London, of so many recordings and of our extensive German tours and appearances at the Proms. Yes, really proud.’

Photo: Helge Skodvin

But for all the admiration this distinguished orchestra has received abroad, Gardner wants to pay tribute to the Bergen audience. ‘It’s extraordinary that in a town of 300,000 people we can sell a 1,500-seat hall twice in a week. Our audience really has come along with us on the journey. They really lift us, and it’s remarkable how they come to so much. I mean, we recognize a lot of them in a way that happens much less obviously in London. We can do unusual things and they’ll trust us. That would be impossible in London now, where you don’t have loyalty to one particular orchestra. There’s no sense of a home team there, and people go to concerts wherever if they fancy something on the programme, often the same old Tchaikovsky. But here we — orchestra and audience — are all the home team together.’

John Allison
Published 4 June 2024