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Edward Gardner brings his new orchestra to Birmingham

Christopher Morley talks to conductor Edward Gardner in Norway ahead of his return to the Symphony Hall

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Edward Gardner is no stranger to Symphony Hall. He has long been a favourite with audiences thanks largely to his many appearances as principal guest conductor of the CBSO (his contract was extended by an extra year, and his return this season has already brought some memorable concerts).

In a few days’ time he appears here again, but this time with his own orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic, as part of a five-venue tour of this country. The last time the Norwegian orchestra visited Symphony Hall was in 2007, under the baton of its then principal conductor Andrew Litton (also a CBSO favourite), and the major work in that programme was Walton’s Symphony no.1.

Coincidentally, the same piece is the highlight of Gardner’s forthcoming concert, which also includes Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Truls Mork (yet another CBSO favourite) the soloist, and excerpts from Peer Gynt, composed by Bergen’s own Edvard Grieg.

I caught up with Edward in Bergen just before Christmas, the morning after he had conducted a wonderfully fresh account of Haydn’s Creation, with English soloists and local choirs in the BPO’s comfortable Grieghalle home.

“I started here just as the orchestra was celebrating its 250th anniversary, which is wonderful,” he tells me.

“To think of the historical depth of this orchestra, and there are very early performances of Mozart symphonies and things which were done here...

“Bergen was very much on the music map, partly because of the ports, the money that came in through shipping, and the port’s support of the orchestra as a civic institution. Lutoslawski was here, Berio was here, Benjamin Britten conducted here. Peter Pears was here as well, so they must have done a programme of some of Britten’s music written for him. He conducted in the Festival, I’m not sure exactly what.”

Nor am I, but my own researches have revealed that Bergen was the location for Britten’s last-ever holiday with his life-partner Peter Pears, in July 1976, just a few months before the composer’s death. This beautiful harbourside city, set between fjords and mountains, surely was very special to them.

And Britten figures largely in this, Gardner’s second season with the BPO, when he conducts a concert-performance of the composer’s Peter Grimes, an opera steeped in the salty smell and merciless winds of the North Sea of which Aldeburgh (where it is set) and Bergen sit on opposite sides.

During my visit news had come through of the 25 per cent cut in funding from Birmingham City Council to the CBSO, despite what the orchestra means to the region in terms of artistic acclaim and visitor-spend. The Bergen people were shocked when I informed them, and Edward expanded.

“We’re trying to develop our role within the community and within the consciousness in Norway. You and I know the dangers in subsidy and funding, and I’m just very aware that in ten years Norway may be making difficult decisions as well. I want us to be just so centred and knit into the fabric of the country and here in Bergen that no-one would dare question our role.”

So does Edward – whose contract with the BPO has just been extended to at least the end of July 2021 – envisage himself still being in Bergen in ten years’ time?

“I haven’t even thought about that, but we’re still thinking deep into the future together. And whether I’m here or not, it’s still my role to be projecting what this orchestra should be doing in that time-scale.

“It’s funny, because when we tour we feel proud, we feel very internationally recognised. In a way, the place that we’re less regarded, in a sense, is at home, because the community doesn’t really know that they have a totally world-class orchestra.

“It’s like having Manchester United in your local stadium, and that’s what I want people to know, that they have something world-class, right here.”

Edward and I agree that the perception of the CBSO at home in Birmingham is a lot different, beginning with the Simon Rattle effect and all the kudos of the acclaim from tours both nationally and abroad. And we both lament the absence of orchestral concerts from television today.

“As a Gloucester boy I grew up with the CBSO, and they were right there! Do you remember Three Screaming Popes by Turnage? I remember that on TV in a CBSO Rattle concert from the Proms, when I was a kid, and I thought that was amazing.”

The Bergen Philharmonc Orchestra has a proud history of recording, not least with recent releases on the Chandos label under Gardner of Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and orchestral songs by Sibelius.

Edward is a firm believer in doing multiple performances of any particular work. “I need repetitions of repertoire, and I need to get beyond a piece for the first time, so that it gets into the muscles.

“I love doing individual pieces a lot, and that’s how I develop myself as a musician anyway, and I really got my teeth a lot into that repertoire. Historically, this orchestra has done a lot of Sibelius, but not in recent decades. So I want that to be a focus of our work together over the next few years.”

How much Scandinavian music does Edward have in his repertoire?

“Well, Grieg, of course. The more I delve into Grieg, the deeper he becomes to me. We’ve just recorded the Peer Gynt, a really big set of excerpts, and Sibelius increasingly. And we’re very committed to new Norwegian music. Part of our 250th anniversary celebrations has involved commissioning new works.

“I think of it like the Olympics programme in our country, the way you actually chart progress. The composers here are looked after. In the UK we can see incredible artistic achievement through the mists of dwindling subsidy, we feel that hunger, you’ve got to want to need it.

“The quality of the orchestras in the UK at the moment is extraordinary, in spite of this thing about the cuts. In Scandinavia it’s maybe a little more comfortable at the moment, but the spectre of all these things is around the corner.

“Having been through all this in the UK, I hope I can prepare us for what might happen to the arts in any direction.”

Our discussion covers wider topics, but eventually we return to memories of Edward’s recent wonderful concerts with the CBSO, which he reaffirms.

“I love my relationship with the CBSO. It’s one of those relationships which seems to grow stronger every time. I’m so fond of them, and they’re lovely with me. They’ve known me for 12 years since I started conducting them when I was a little kid, and they’re so supportive and so warm to me.”

And the relationship is going to continue. “It feels like being at home in Symphony Hall, with that great orchestra.”

* Edward Gardner conducts the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite no.1, the Elgar Cello Concerto (soloist Truls Mork), and Walton’s Symphony no.1 at Symphony Hall on January 17 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.

Upcoming Concerts

* January 6: The ever-popular John Wilson conducts the remarkable National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Rachmaninov's sumptuously romantic Second Symphony. The concert also includes Brett Dean's Komarvo's Fall, and Tamara Stefanovich is the pianist in Szymanowski's Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony Hall 7.30pm).

* January 8: Just back from its tour in China, the CBSO brings "The Magic of Vienna" to Symphony Hall when Aleksandar Markovic conducts an afternoon of favourites by Johann Strauss and others. Jack Liebeck is the violin soloist (3pm).

* January 10: The exciting Heath Quartet play string quartets by Beethoven and Dvorak at Birmingham Conservatoire (1.05pm).

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