As commutes go, London to Bergen has its attractions. Nearly a year into the post of chief conductor at the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Ed Gardner has a bounce in his step and exudes genuine enthusiasm for the job. After eight years as English National Opera's music director, a cynic might snipe that he's better off in the Norwegian fjords, especially as the company all but imploded in the past year. But Gardner – who returned to conduct a new production of Tristan und Isolde this summer – is remarkably upbeat about ENO's future. Back in London to record Elgar with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, we meet for lunch at a trendy Islington deli stuffed with Italian delicacies and tempting pastries. His boyish charm is undimmed, whether describing life in Bergen, recording projects or ENO's plans.

Ed Gardner © Helge Skodvin
Ed Gardner
© Helge Skodvin

“Having done so much in London, it's a culture shock being somewhere really beautiful to do your work, because it is beautiful,” he enthuses. “Rainy, but beautiful! People are so focussed on their work. It feels almost laboratory-like because – if you think of what Haydn had in Esterháza – people live close by. They walk to work, it's an easy commute, so they can focus on family and music and that's really wonderful. It's very much a different pace from London. You do more days of rehearsal so you can delve in deeper.

“The orchestra is very international, but it has a core of string players and a lot of principal woodwinds who are Norwegian and that's where the sound comes from, this special sound. It's cultured, it's like an old-fashioned chamber orchestra with a lot of life – almost Viennese. I fell in love with that sound the first time I stood in front of the orchestra.” Nevertheless, it needs careful balancing. “The Grieg Hall is quite resonant. It dominates the brass, so we spend a lot of time working on getting a good sound. It's a strange place because it's amphitheatrical, which gives it a different dynamic.”

Much of Gardner's time is spent in Bergen. By late August, he'd already completed three weeks of the new Bergen season. “We did some outdoor concerts and finished off a Sibelius disc with Gerry Finley, which is going to be great, with Rautavaara's orchestrations of songs, including one he wrote just two months ago. It must have been the last thing he worked on.” Do the Norwegians like having lots of Scandinavian music on their menu? “I think yes, but strangely, not in their recent history. Andrew Litton did a lot of Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, so they've had a spell without playing too much. Their Sibelius is good – they haven't done the 2s or the 5s recently at all, so I'll do lots with them.

“Doing Peer Gynt last year was scary! But it wasn't once I was there, because they do it so many times with so many different people that they don't have a “this is the way it goes” kind of attitude to it. But their antennae are out to see what you make of it. It was actually one of the most enjoyable things I've done there. We did a very extended suite with some of the vocal movements with people like Lise Davidsen, who's bloody marvellous."

After years in the pit at the Coliseum, Gardner is conscious that there are gaps in his orchestral repertoire. Last season, he conducted Brahms' Second Symphony for the first time and he's recently added Mahler 5, which “went pretty well, but it's one of those pieces that you just want a lot of goes at. I promised the orchestra that I wouldn't try things out on them to start with, so we spent last season doing my rep. I would love to do Mahler 2 and 8. I did a read-through of Mahler 2 when Gilbert Kaplan came to the Hallé. Some of my colleagues have conducted it for 20 years by the time they get to my age, but it's all new to me. I'd like to do the Schubert and Schumann symphonies too, which would suit the Bergen string sound very much.”

When preparing a work for the first time, how soon does one start looking at the score? “As early as you dare. The more I do, the more I realise that an hour a year before is better than a day a week before!”

Ed Gardner conducts the Bergen Philharmonic © Helge Skodvin
Ed Gardner conducts the Bergen Philharmonic
© Helge Skodvin

Does he listen to recordings? “I used to think there was a danger in that, but not any more. You get to a point where you're your own person and you know what you want. It's very interesting, we've just been recording Elgar 1 with the BBCSO, where I basically didn't listen to any other performances because I know the piece very well and if you start listening to other recordings, you start getting belligerent about what you really think. It's got to be natural.”

Bergen streams performances for free on its Digital Concert Hall platform. “It's very much a new departure for us. It's very unobtrusive in performance – I don't even notice the cameras there.” It's a way of spreading the orchestra's reach, something which is important to Gardner. “We do two concerts a week to over 1400 probably, in a town the size of Northampton. They turn out for the concerts, although the Norwegian thing is that at the weekends, they all go off to their huts in the mountains, so don't try and do a Saturday night concert! Thursday night is our best night, Friday night less busy.

“The outreach is interesting, because it is so different from London. As an orchestra, we can go around all the schools in Bergen and reach every 9-10 year old. Here in London, you're scratching the surface in a very superficial way. My concern though, is that Bergen has a huge student population, and yet we don't attract enough of them to the concerts. Our programming is really intrepid. We can be braver there than often in London, but for some reason, we're just not on their radar.” We mull that a lot of people come to classical music later on in life. “Absolutely, but the danger is that without some grounding in classical music at a young age, you won't know it's there to turn to in later life and that's a real worry.”

Highlights for this season in Bergen include a concert performance of Peter Grimes. I don't have to look up our listing to know which tenor will be singing the title role – Stuart Skelton and Ed Gardner are possibly the greatest bromance in classical music today. “It's incredibly beautiful singing, but it's also his commitment,” Gardner explains. “He can't not be committed in anything. He's incredibly open-hearted. Stuart never backs off anything. We've done so much great stuff together – our Gurrelieder is currently on the Digital Concert Hall, but it's even better on disc – we recorded two live performances, but we also took all the rehearsals and a short patching session.” Grimes is one of Skelton's signature roles, most familiar to British audiences in David Alden's ENO production. Britten's tale of a Suffolk fishing community should speak to the people of Bergen. “They won't know what's hit them!”

Gardner was last reunited with Skelton in the summer for Daniel Kramer's production of Tristan und Isolde at his old ENO stomping ground. He clearly believes that good things are around the corner for the company. “It was a strange time to be back at ENO with all that had gone on... but it was wonderful and I was so proud of what the orchestra achieved. I have a lot of friends there and I just hope this is a year of calmness. Daniel Kramer [newly announced as artistic director] has got great plans. They're ambitious, in a good way, very musically informed. I like Daniel very much. In the rehearsal room, he's wonderful. He's incredibly detailed about drama and how it fits with the music in a way that lots of people aren't and I really relished that."

Ed Gardner relaxes in Bergen © Helge Skodvin
Ed Gardner relaxes in Bergen
© Helge Skodvin

Aside from Grimes, Gardner will be continuing his Brahms symphony cycle in Bergen, along with the German Requiem. But it's also a year for the orchestra to set out on its travels. “We're touring Germany with the Symphonie fantastique which will be a really big thing for us. We're also touring Walton 1 and Elgar's Cello Concerto here. I don't think we were bullish about bringing British rep to the UK, but we just thought it was a good idea. We like the story of a programme with Grieg, Elgar and Walton because it spoke a lot about the orchestra and me and our relationship – it felt like a very nice narrative.”

With concerto soloists, Gardner clearly likes to roll up his sleeves. “When you're used to coaching singers, you really get your hands dirty and I didn't realise I was different to other people until someone in the CBSO – in a pre-concert talk – said “yeah, you really get stuck in with the soloist!” Apparently others just sit back and let the soloist take control. I didn't realise that was what I was meant to be doing! I'm lucky – I work with so many amazing musicians, yet I can't stop myself saying what I think!”

Programming an orchestral season is about balance. “You have to give the orchestra and the audience the widest possible diet you can.” Are there any pieces he'd give a wide berth and offer to someone else? “Almost all Shostakovich! I find it's surface music, justified by historical context and it makes me very uncomfortable. I have a conflicting relationship with Britten. I love the pieces where I think he is completely emotionally committed – Grimes, the Violin Concerto, Death in Venice – but not Billy Budd, which is very manipulatively done, or the War Requiem – film music under great poetry. It's just personal preference, isn't it? I'm allergic to things and I don't know why.”

Away from Bergen, Gardner's got a hectic schedule, including Werther at the Metropolitan Opera and Eugene Onegin in Paris with some starry casts, but he likes to relax watching cricket, taking in the odd game at The Oval when time allows. Perhaps he should encourage the formation of a Bergen Philharmonic XI? One suspects more games would get rained off than completed. 

Full orchestra with umbrellas at Troldhaugen © Oddleiv Apneseth
Full orchestra with umbrellas at Troldhaugen
© Oddleiv Apneseth

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