Edward Gardner, chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, made his much-anticipated Philadelphia Orchestra debut this weekend with thought-provoking interpretations and captivating drive. He led the Philadelphians with skill and good humor in works that spanned three centuries, making even the eldest and most familiar, Elgar's Enigma Variations, seem bright and original.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

The dynamic young leader, known for programming that is both adventurous and fearless, chose as the centerpiece of his visit the American composer Michael Daugherty’s Once Upon a Castle, composed in 2003 and revised in 2015 for organist Paul Jacobs. No stranger to Philadelphia audiences, Jacobs performed with the orchestra on the mighty Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, and one could not imagine a more colorful, thrilling and artistically nuanced presentation. Jacobs is a showman in the best possible sense, exploring and exploiting all the possibilities of this king of instruments, but always in the service of the composer’s intent.

The Castle is program music of a sort, depicting a visit to the San Simeon castle of William Randolph Hearst (think Citizen Kane) on the California coastline. The work opens with a bold but lyrical solo organ passage, followed by syncopations as listeners imagine driving up the five-mile, winding road to the flamboyant publisher’s hideaway. The following movements – Neptune Pool, Rosebud and Xanadu – capture the sensations evoked by the now popular tourist attraction and images of the iconic film by Orson Welles.

Daugherty uses all the musical resources at his disposal to excellent effect, crafting a work that contains a universe of varied sounds, dynamics, and textures, with some highly original percussion combinations. Bells and sweeping violins lend a sweet Scheherazade feeling to the second movement, with that Middle Eastern flavor permeating the final movement as well, a cinematic tour de force haunted by the ghosts of Dimitri Tiomkin, Elmer Bernstein and Miklós Rózsa. The composer was present at the matinee performance and took a well-deserved bow.

My only criticism is that listeners with sensitive hearing – not uncommon among classical auditors – may have found the decibel-level a bit overwhelming at times. However, as with restaurants, so also with concert halls: perhaps there is no such thing as “too loud” when people are enjoying an experience with utter abandon.

Conducting with a baton, Gardner clearly was in control on the podium through all three selections, at times shifting his entire body to face a section, his energy level never lagging from first measure to final bar. He seems to conduct from his upper back, as opposed to directors who crouch and leap, or those who stand stock still and inflect with a subtle wrist. This may help him retain his physical energy throughout a menu of complex machinations, leading a large ensemble stretched across a broad stage.

The concert opened with Gardner’s reading of Britten’s disturbing, sometimes uplifting Sinfonia da Requiem from 1940. Commissioned by the Japanese government but later spurned and disowned by the commissioners, the requiem took on a new life of its own as Britten’s testimony against war. As such, it contains some of the British composer’s most eloquent but also most strident and dystopian imagery. The concert ended with Elgar’s portrait gallery of his friends, the Enigma Variations, evoked with fervor, flair, and lyricism by the orchestra and its guest conductor.

*****