It’s two years into Ed Gardner’s stint as as chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, and he sounds relaxed, the charm flowing freely, as we speak on the phone just before the start of the new season. Clearly, I suggest, he’s still having a lot of fun. "Yeah, it’s great!" he replies with a laugh. 

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

"It’s funny. You judge it in events of the season." He refers back immediately to a summer tour that included a triumphant Peter Grimes with Stuart Skelton – who else? – at the Edinburgh Festival. "With those sort of things, you can really feel your relationship with the orchestra develop, and vice versa. That was a really wondrous thing for all of us. So we’re in a very good place together."

There were plenty of other events of the season that he can look back on, too. That Grimes started out as a collaboration with the Bergen National Opera in May, while the spring saw tours to Britain as well as major venues across the Germany. "It was very special for me to bring my new orchestra to the UK, and we had a lovely time doing a variety of programmes – and lots of Walton Ones and Bartók Concertos for Orchestra."

This busy tour schedule is part and parcel of Gardner’s enthusiasm for his orchestra, one of the world’s oldest, and desire to show it off on a global stage. And it’s something that, since the start of his tenure, has also been backed up by the decision to stream its concerts online. "It’s a really important thing for us, because we are geographically isolated, and we feel what we do is about communicating with the rest of Europe and hopefully the world." There’s flipside, too: another aim, he says, is "to let the people of Bergen really know what quality they have in their midst. When we go to Edinburgh or when we come to the Proms, we have a strong feeling about that, and we have a strong pride in what we do."

Gardner’s own priority with the streaming, he tells me, is simply to "keep the performance special". He and his players barely notice the cameras ("I mean, those things are so small now!"), and he is happy to leave the technical nitty-gritty of the process, the editing of concerts for the archive, for example, to others. "We have a great team of people working on them that I know I can trust. At the moment we’re working it making it as realistic as possible. My big thing is that the quality and the range of the camera shots ties in with the depth of the orchestral sound. You need to feel visually how immense or incredibly quiet something is."

A year on from his last interview with Bachtrack, the conductor is still clearly relishing the advantages of being in Bergen: in a country that sees the arts as of central importance, in a city where a loyal audience is willing to put trust in the programmes he presents. "In certain cities orchestras often – and I don’t agree with this – feel as though they have to do a very mainstream, missionary-position programme in order to get the hall full. But I’m more interested in this trust you can build up between an audience and a conductor and orchestra. Audiences smell fear, and the worst thing you can do is to patronise them into thinking they will only like, or that they’re only able to appreciate, the most mainstream 20 symphonies."

A glance through the orchestra’s schedule demonstrates the point, but when I point specifically to the British repertoire Gardner has programmed, he’s quick to credit his predecessor, Andrew Litton, for having already laid the foundations. "With Peter Grimes it was the first time they’d done that, but it felt like a culmination of lots of other work they had done historically: The Planets with Andrew, perhaps; the Enigma Variations, Elgar Symphonies with me and other bits of Britten.

"But to be honest, I’m more interested in doing Grieg with them! That is a real privilege, to do that sort of repertoire. We’re trying to rediscover the Nordic roots of the orchestra as well. So future plans include a lot of Sibelius, which has strangely been a little bit of a blind spot, and Nielsen symphonies. And actually, for our next project, we’re working with Lise Davidsen to record Sibelius songs – and also perform Grieg songs."

The young Norwegian soprano is the orchestra’s Artist in Residence for the season, and she’s just one of several local artists who Gardner loves working with. Truls Mørk was the soloist, playing the Elgar Cello Concerto, on the orchestra’s German tour earlier in the year, for example, while Leif Ove Andsnes, featured in the first concert of the new season. "He lives locally, and he feels this is his home orchestra – it’s such an important relationship! Lise is the next on in line. She’s an absolutely outstanding singer, but we also want to help generate even more young Norwegian singers. I think Lise could really help enthuse a young generation to find their voice."

It was Gardner who booked Davidsen for her London debut, a Verdi Requiem with the Philharmonia, and she’ll sing in a performance of the same work later this season in Bergen; other performances include Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder and Sibelius’s Luonnotar. There’s also more Verdi in an Otello, another Bergen National Opera collaboration with Skelton in the role, which can’t help but evoke a certain nostalgia for Gardner’s eight-year tenure at the ENO. "I’m certainly nostalgic for lots of things we did together," he admits, "and Stuart was emblematic for ENO at the time." The two of them have plenty of plans for the future, he says, including a long-mooted disc of German Romantic arias.

Another piece of programming that catches the eye is Ryan Wigglesworth’s Clocks from a Winter’s Tale, an orchestral piece based on his 2016 opera, co-commissioned by the Bergen Philharmonic, which Gardner conducts in January. He was clearly bowled over by the full opera at its London première – "It made me really yearn to be back at ENO," he admits. But no one should read anything into his absence from his old home in the current season, he assures me. "We’re talking about what might happen in the future. I had no idea how things would turn out, but I was very clear that I would give my successor breathing space. I’m incredibly fond of ENO and loyal to it, and I desperately want it to succeed."


Article sponsored by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra