Edward Gardner salutes the enduring legacy of Ralph Vaughan Williams

Because of his impressive resume, it’s not surprising that the name of Edward Gardner regularly pops up when top-level orchestra and opera positions become available.

“The people who speculate about these listings are never the people who make the decisions,” said Gardner, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. “I just try not to worry about it. When it becomes too intense, and it has nothing to do with you, it can be annoying, because it can affect your working relationship with those musicians who think you are desperately after a job with them. But basically, I just get on with it. I don’t listen to that stuff.”

After making his Severance Hall debut a week earlier with the Cleveland Orchestra, the British-born Gardner will return to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 3-5 for his second set of appearances on its subscription series (the first came in 2018, with his CSO debut in 2017 at the Ravinia Festival). The concerts mark his first time back in the United States since the COVID-19 shutdown. 

A highlight of Gardner’s Chicago appearance will be a performance of the infrequently heard Symphony No. 5 in D Major (1938-43) by Ralph Vaughan Williams, part of the international celebration of the 150th anniversary of the English composer’s birth. “This piece is very special because it was written in the shadow of war,” Gardner said. “I’m really fascinated to see how the orchestra takes to it, because it is not a huge, virtuosic statement. It’s a piece about intimacy and finding community after the horrors of war. It’s a really beautiful work.”

The piece differs significantly from Vaughan Williams’ Fourth and Sixth symphonies, which to Gardner are more “bombastic and ugly sometimes” in a kind of Shostakovich vein. “They speak to me less than this,” he said, “which is all about lyricism and being brave through music.” Acknowledging that he is not the “most natural” interpreter of the composer’s works as a whole, Gardner has only a few works by Vaughan Williams in his repertory. “But I’m completely besotted with this piece,” he said.

Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony “is not a huge, virtuosic statement. It’s a piece about intimacy and finding community after the horrors of war. It’s a really beautiful work.” — Edward Gardner

Since the Fifth Symphony is almost what Gardner called a “non-virtuosic statement,” he wanted a “meaty” selection to offset it. Filling that role on the program is Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (1937-38), with famed violinist Christian Tetzlaff as soloist. “It’s as much a concerto for orchestra as it is for the soloist,” he said. “It will really show off the virtuosity of that wonderful orchestra.” 

Gardner led Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi during his last visit with the Chicago Symphony, and this time he is opening with the composer’s Prelude to Act 3 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Both works are meant to be a tribute to the orchestra’s rich association with Wagner’s music, including several acclaimed discs featuring then music director Sir Georg Solti. “It’s a lovely little gift to the history of that orchestra,” he said, “which I really wanted to do.”

Gardner’s early posts included music director of Glyndebourne on Tour (2004-07) and the English National Opera (2007-2015), and he is returning to that milieu with his appointment earlier this year as music director of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet. He does not take over the new job until fall 2024, but he is already working with the company as artistic adviser and is set to lead a production of Un ballo in maschera this spring.

The position continues his professional association with the country, which began in 2013 when he became principal guest conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic. Two years later, he took over as principal conductor, a position that he will relinquish at the end of the 2023-24 season. He contrasted the country’s strong work-life balance with the freneticism of London, noting that the musicians of the London Philharmonic are like high-level athletes who can prepare very quickly for a game. “In Norway, you have a little bit more time to breathe, think and experiment,” he said. “I like the combination of the two. It really works for me.”  

The Bergen Philharmonic has long punched above its weight, considering that it is based in a city of only 285,000, yet has an international reputation, one that Gardner has worked hard to enhance. “I’m not yet at a place to sit down and think about it,” he said of his time with the group. “We still have 19 months, thankfully, and it will be a very sad day when we finish, because we really are a family together.”

That said, he pointed to accomplishments such as the orchestra’s two trips to the Edinburgh Festival, where it presented concert performances of the operas Salomé and Peter Grimes, and its appearances at the Proms in London. In addition, Gardner has made nearly two dozen recordings with the Bergen ensemble; more are on the way, including a complete set of Nielsen symphonies and more Brahms symphonies. “It’s been a real journey,” he said.

Gardner began his post with the London Philharmonic in fall 2021. “It was a nice time to start because we were just coming out of the pandemic,” he said. “So we were able to do a really big program with a full house. It felt great. We’re really getting to know each other, and it’s a great pleasure.”

He opened the orchestra’s 2022-23 season with Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, a cantata for five soloists, narrator, chorus and orchestra. Critic Tim Ashley gushed about the conductor’s take in London’s Guardian: “Pivoting between post-Romantic excess and modernist experimentation, it’s a work that in many ways suits Gardner down to the ground, and throughout he was marvelously alert to the complexities of its sound world, yet all the while focused on its dramatic momentum and metaphysical grandeur.

Gardner had not sought out a post in the Great Britain, since he had done so much there early in his career, but he is pleased to return. “It is a city I know well, of course,” he said. “I love it, and the quality of the music-making is staggering. I wasn’t looking to come back to London, but it was such a wonderful opportunity that I couldn’t say no.”

Important to Gardner in all of his career choices is keeping a balance between the symphonic and operatic sides of his conducting portfolio. “I’m acutely aware when I have too little of one or the other,” he said. “After ENO, it was a big chance for me to get a lot of symphonic repertoire under my belt, and now the idea of doing 50-50 is really wonderful.”

Gardner’s name was among those floated as possibilities as music director of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, a post that recently went to Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša. Gardner said the position wasn’t appropriate for him because of his still-new role with the London Philharmonic. He couldn’t imagine balancing two such high-profile posts in one city. “It just wouldn’t make sense,” he said. In any case, he praised the choice of Hrůša. “It’s amazing job,” he said. “I think they’ve gone for a brilliant person, and I’m really happy for them. I’m sure it will another great era.”