Set in a stunning landscape, the city of Bergen has a claim as the gateway to the Norwegian fjords, but it increasingly has another claim – as the home to one of Scandinavia’s finest symphony orchestras, the Bergen Philharmonic. 2015 is a huge year for the orchestra, when it celebrates its 250th anniversary and will see Edward Gardner take over the reins from Andrew Litton as Chief Conductor. Ahead of his final season as Music Director at English National Opera, Gardner spoke to Bachtrack about his enthusiasm for taking up his new post in Bergen.

Edward Gardner OBE © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner OBE
© Benjamin Ealovega

A New Chief Conductor

“I remember the first time I flew in over this incredible countryside,” he recalled in an interview at London’s Coliseum, “you see these beautiful islands everywhere. The scenery is incredible, but it belies this extraordinary pool of musical talent. This orchestra is fantastic. It’s recorded a lot of discs recently, which have had a lot of acclaim, and their profile is going up, but in London people don’t really know about the orchestra… and I kind of like that. I love working with them. It’s the sort of working environment which is completely fantastic. They’re furious if they don’t have enough rehearsal time for programmes! They work all week towards these single programmes and they want to get deep inside the music.”

Gardner explained how rehearsals work in a different way from UK orchestras: “Basically, they follow the Scandinavian model of rehearsing five hours in a row, then you’re free in the afternoon. This gives people the chance to gestate the music and to think about it and everyone does – that’s great for a conductor too.”

The Grieghallen

The Bergen Philharmonic plays in the Grieghallen, its home since 1978. “It has a nice sound – resonant – so it’s good to record in. The audience seats are raked quite steeply, which feels amphitheatrical, in a way. I think it gives the audience a different energy which can be distancing to a certain extent. I’d love to explore what might be possible with that in the future.” Gardner is delighted that the hall is a communal space and that “it very much feels like the centre of the community”.

When asked to characterize ‘the Bergen sound’, his eyes light up. “It is wrapped around their gorgeous string sound, for sure. Norway has a very singular string tradition… there’s a slightly old-fashioned, Viennese quality to it. There’s a beauty to the sound, but it’s married to this chamber music energy, so you get the best of both worlds.”

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra © Oddleiv Apneseth
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
© Oddleiv Apneseth

New repertoire

Gardner has performed and recorded a lot of 20th century orchestral music, such as Szymanowski, Lutosławski, Britten and Bartók. Is this where his passion lies? “It’s a combination of things,” he replies. “I was very wary of doing a Beethoven cycle as my first recordings; to start with the Polish repertoire – which is repertoire I love – and also slightly ‘left-field’ was a better way for me to start on that kind of journey. Having done all the Mendelssohn symphonies, I’m now going more mainstream. We’ve got plans in Bergen for more of the same, but we’re also doing a big Janáček cycle (we’ve recorded the Sinfonietta already) which will include repertoire which is new music for the orchestra.” The Glagolitic Mass is one such work and is performed in March 2015, featuring tenor Stuart Skelton, a familiar Gardner collaborator. Jealousy, originally the overture to Janáček’s opera Jenůfa, and Taras Bulba feature earlier in the season.

Season highlights

The coming season has a vast array of highlights, which include a performance of the incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in a concert entitled A Geography of Lies, which includes a video visualisation by Alexander Polzin. Edvard Grieg, whose Troldhaugen home is just 9km from Bergen, was artistic director of the orchestra from 1880-82. Opera fans will be sure to catch concert performances of Verdi's Aida, which include rising star soprano Latonia Moore in the title role.

There is a strong commitment to new music. Under the banner ‘Opus 250’, the orchestra will perform 25 pieces commissioned by the orchestra. Principal timpanist Håkon Kartveit gives the world première of Marcus Paus’ Timpani Concerto.

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra © Oddleiv Apneseth
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
© Oddleiv Apneseth

A Symphonic Marathon

One of the early highlights of Gardner’s tenure promises to be a ‘Symphonic Marathon’, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the orchestra by spanning the history of the symphony in a single day, from a Handel Sinfonia to Mahler’s Tenth and beyond. “It’ll be a massive thing for the orchestra to do and they’re so good at stylistic change – it’ll be a fantastic episode. We’re taking the works chronologically through the day, with symposiums in between.” Anton Webern and John Adams close the marathon in a concert by the BIT20 Ensemble.

Mahler symphonies features large in the season, with the Fourth (conducted by Juanjo Mena), the Third (Litton) and the First (Gardner) likely to prove big audience draws. Massive orchestral (and choral) forces are required for Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which closes the 250th anniversary year in December 2015 – so massive that the orchestra will be bolstered by members of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra!

Gardner takes up the Chief Conductor role at a concert on 8 October 2015, where Gardner and Litton will share the baton. “To go into Bergen in this anniversary year is extraordinary in itself. They’re in great shape – Andrew Litton has done amazing work with them – the anniversary will be an incredibly fond farewell for Andrew. Bergen is a very special place. I’m so lucky. My mission is to get their name out there and their profile up and to get as many people as possible to realise quite how brilliant they are.”


This article is sponsored by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.