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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Tonight and tomorrow: Conductor Edward Gardner's blind dates now include the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

By John Terauds on November 27, 2013

Edward gardner conducted the Last Night of the Proms at Royal Albert Hall two years ago (Chris Christodoulou/BBC photo).
Edward Gardner conducted the Last Night of the Proms at Royal Albert Hall two years ago (Chris Christodoulou/BBC photo).

Edward Gardner, making his local début with the Toronto Symphony tonight and tomorrow, describes the relationship between a conductor and orchestra as, “a chemical thing.”

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

“Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t,” he continues, adding that Sir Colin Davis used to refer the first contact between baton and players as “a blind date.”

Clearly Gardner has the right combination of attractive traits, because wherever the 39-year-old goes, orchestras and opera companies want him back.

Like Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s, Gardner’s career arc looks more like a rocket launch. And, like Nézet-Séguin, Gardner can’t seem to say no. His schedule is packed with guest visits around the world — all the while working as the music director at English National Opera (since 2007) and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (since 2011).

Gardner built his reputation as a fine opera conductor — so much so that he is also in demand at the Met now — but is equally at home in the concert hall.

He justifies his crazy travel schedule by saying that he’s looking at finding a better balance between opera and concert work. “I’ve done a hell of a lot of opera in 10 years of [professional] conducting,” he says. “Orchestras around the world have different personalities, and, so far, I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to get to know North American orchestras.”

Gardner says the first half hour of rehearsal is “a seminal time” with a new orchestra. When I suggest it might be closer to the first 30 seconds, he laughs and admits that might be true, too.

The Toronto Symphony often introduces new guest conductors with lighter repertoire. Not so with Gardner, who jumps into the deep end with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, the “Titan.” Coincidentally, Mahler was known primarily as an opera conductor — and he clearly brought some of that sensibility to his symphonic compositions.

“There is a great innate sense of drama” in the First Symphony, says Gardner. He, like many people, wonders why the composer never wrote an actual opera.

They round out the quasi-operatic connections in this week’s Toronto Symphony programme, we get the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. The guest soloist is trumpeter Alison Balsom, playing a virtuosic Trumpet Concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummell.

Besides wanting to explore the sounds and dynamics of different orchestras, Gardner is also interested in delving deeper into the symphonic canon — like Mahler and Brahms and Bruckner.

Gardner didn’t follow what we think of in North America as a conventional path to the podium. Like Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus, Gardner was first immersed in music as a church chorister (at Gloucester Cathedral) and entered the opera work through the rehearsal-room door, as a répétiteur at the Salzburg Festival.

Yes, he does have formal musical schooling, but he learned the real craft on the job, at the piano as much as wielding a baton. And so the traditional repertoire of the symphony orchestra is not necessarily something he is intimate with.

I ask him how it’s possible to travel so much and also learn new repertoire. He replies that an opera conductor actually has quite a bit of time to study once a production is up and running. “There is always space between performances, in the evenings and on free days,” he says.

So now we know how he likes to spend his spare time.

For all the details on the Toronto Symphony concerts on Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon, click here.

And here, as a particularly impressive introduction, is Gardner leading the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest of Holland in Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances at the big hall of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam two years ago:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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