It doesn't really matter that Sergiu Celibidache ran the Berliner Philharmoniker at 33, that Claudio Abbado ran la Scala at 35, that Riccardo Muti ran Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at 27 and the Philharmonia at 33: a lot of people, especially at the opera, in the last couple decades seemed to want their conductors, for some strange reason, to be old. A new crop of young conductors has emerged, thankfully: among them Edward Gardner, very 34-year-old, very British, Eton, Cambridge, and the Royal Academy of Music, is one of the more talented -- and he has one of the cooler, if more difficult, jobs. He is the Music Director of English National Opera, leading the smaller, less wealthy ENO in the same city of the giant old Covent Garden. Gardner's in good company of fellow young conductors: Dudamel, Harding, Ticciati, Jurowski.
In May 2007, Edward Gardner became Music Director of the ENO, and he's one of the go-to guys for everything 20th (and 21st, actually) century -- Sibelius & Saariaho, Britten & Stravinsky (and his -- very British -- Mozart isn't too shabby, either). The ENO’s first ever staging of Britten’s Death in Venice quickly became one of his calling cards, conducted during his inaugural season.
He's been branded as the cover-boy of the crisis-stricken opera company turnaround who breathed life into the sidelined ENO, which only a handful of years ago slid into the vengeful graces of budget crises, layoffs, evaporated team spirit, intermittent strikes, general lameness and exasperating executive reshuffling. The ENO, under the short reign of Gardner, has already recovered well, and re-established itself as an affordable and experimental counterpart to London's Covent Garden, drawing young crowds and breathing life into the whole scene.
Between Gardner's insanely busy schedule, he recently graced New York City with a rare visit, and touched-down in the Big Apple to make an appearance at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, where he teamed with a handful of soloists as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival. Among the set-list of his two concerts this past weekend, he conducted Mozart's Die Zauberflöte overture, Mozart's piano concerto (no.18, featuring pianist Piotr Anderszewski's awesome cadenze) and symphony no.39. But the real treat was Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings (with tenor Toby Spence and horn soloist Lawrence DiBello). Fans of the exceedingly polite, academic, borderline boring readings of Britten beware: Gardner's interpretation is lush with chiaroscuro, while weaving a seamless narrative that paints a juicy swath. The NY Times thought so, too. [Edit: The Bernheimer also weighs in favorably.]
Maestro Edward Gardner was kind enough to sit and chat with OC while he was here in NYC. Click the link below to read the Opera Chic exclusive interview with the young maestro:
Claudio Abbado says that over these last few years, the one thing he doesn't miss with his lighter work schedule is the bureaucratic part of the job that he hated so much. At the ENO, you're in the middle of that part of the job: how much does that wear you down?
"It's very hard work because you have to create two personalities for yourself. One as a musician, and one as an administrator or a manager or kind of a parental figure for the elements of what's required inside the job, and you’ve got to keep them really separate. So it's not that it's a bigger work load, it's just that you can't become a manager as a musician or vice versa. You can't become too venerable as a manager, and it’s really hard work. But it's a very good time in my life to do it. And actually, the opportunity to shape the vision of a company is absolutely astounding and it’s a big privilege. So it's hard work, but I never feel like the bureaucratic side is negative."
Why do so many people get the vapors whenever a company actually produces an oratorio as an actual staging? Handel seems to be able to deal with Claus Guth or Debora Warner – So why do some people think it's taboo?
"I suppose some people believe in the purity of art forms. The ENO has always been a place where different avenues are explored, first of all with fantastic directors who are coming in to work with us for the first time. And we've always interested in sort of blurring those boundaries. And to be honest -- Handel, Beethoven, Mozart -- they're incredibly adaptable for what they did at the time of their pieces. Deborah Warner did a Bach's St. John Passion a few years ago which was prodigiously effective, and I think she always has some really strong ideas from the start, so it’s always great."
Everybody's buzzing about “opera for the people” and how you should bring a younger audience in whether they want it to come or not. How realistic is this -- not just in London for ENO -- but in general? Isn't opera inherently difficult, inherently not-that-popular? I mean, Le Nozze di Figaro is perhaps the greatest example of the art form and its plot is pretty complicated. And it's a long work, no matter which version you use. Why should we pretend everybody will love the opera, if properly packaged?
"Frankly, I’m evangelical, but realistic. Just like not everyone likes football, not everyone is going to like opera, and that's okay. There are certainly a lot more people at the moment who are out there of a lower age range that say can get it. We work harder that way, including the internet stuff we do for the ENO. Some of the directors we've had in recently have totally changed our audience in that direction. A couple of years ago, Anthony Minghella did a Madama Butterfly [the same production that opened the Metropolitan Opera season in 2006, and heralded the new Gelb regime] and the audience completely changed into this sort of younger, film-going crowd, and hopefully that will bleed through to the other audiences."
"And the point of your Nozze question is interesting. When I tell people to go to their first opera, I say they should go to something where opera can speak to you emotionally in a way that nothing else can. For me, that's a piece like Janáček's Jenůfa or Britten's Peter Grimes. Because I believe the mainstream repertoire takes some getting used to. If you've never heard a Mozart opera, I think it's very difficult to sit there for four hours and be able to get the layers, and also get the sense of that different world and different environment. So I say go into it with something very visceral. In my experience, it's the operas that have a sort of rawness about them. Jenůfa sort of speaks from the guts and something like Peter Grimes does as well. And non-musical friends of mine seem to get that more, and then they're able to go onto different operas like Figaro or Aida."
John Barbirolli used to say that Beethoven’s 9th saved him from despair many times -- do you have a piece of music that's therapeutic for your mood?
"There are a few pieces that when I do them, they really stick in my head unbelievably, and some that really don't. And it's not based on the greatness of the music. Beethoven's 7th somewhat, but nothing quite in particular. But I do have many snippets of so many different things like bits of Hansel and Gretel, bits of Götterdämmerung. And Onegin is a piece that I keep going back to. I find it incredibly inspiring."
Are there any operas you have not conducted yet and you wish you had?
"There are hundreds of operas that I want to conduct. One day I'd love to start conducting Wagner, but it is way off. Berg’s Wozzeck is very fresh, and I'm looking forward to Bluebeards Castle, which I'll be doing this autumn. It's a brilliant piece. And there are also lots of pieces I want to revisit. I did Strauss’ Elektra once in a concert version in Edinburgh, and I can't wait to do a proper production of it."
A lot of modern music is unjustly slammed because it’s quite often badly conducted and badly interpreted. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the more conservative members of the audience -- and the critics -- don't like Saariaho, or Glass, and others, because to them, that music sounds too thin, or too repetitive, or too flat. But your shimmering rendering of Saariaho shows that her music can be anything but flat -- maybe we simply need better, deeper conducting of modern works, too?
"Kaija Saariaho’s aren't necessarily conducted like modern works. You conduct it like Ravel or Debussy because the music is so textured. I don't think you can treat it in any mathematical way. But I tend to do modern works, which I feel are very musical anyway and are very dramatic, and Saariaho’s music is like that. I think you can conduct those pieces very badly, and I can tell you that Kaija's music is unbelievably hard to get musically, especially in getting its fluidity the right way."