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Review: Gardner Guides the New York Philharmonic In a Passionate Performance

Edward Gardner

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, April 30, 2018

Making his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic last week, British maestro Edward Gardner, currently chief conductor of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic, is clearly on the rise. Also this season, he makes his first appearances with San Francisco and Chicago as well. With much experience conducting opera around the world, he brought an electric verve to the podium at David Geffen Hall this week.

With an impresario’s passion, before beginning, he directly addressed the audience, bringing a personal touch to the concert’s opener, Jean Sibelius’s rarely heard, but wonderful, tone poem, Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 from 1906. Gardner animatedly shared with the audience what the piece is about (a Finnish folk story sharing some similarities to the Sirens in Homer or the Lorelei in Rhineland) and what to listen for (for example, the possible inspiration for Bernard Hermann’s Psycho shower scene music).

He led the Philharmonic in a well-drawn, passionate performance of the score, one of Sibelius’s most compressed, vivid, and dynamic creations. While not as familiar to audiences as Richard Strauss’s tone poems with which it shares some musicological context, it’s possible to hear some lasting influence. Sibelius’s way with the orchestra — especially the close voicing in the horns in piquant moments — aurally anticipates some of John Williams’s scores for E.T., for example.

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, Artist-in-Residence this season at the Philharmonic, before playing a hotly anticipated solo recital this Wednesday, performed one of the few works by Claude Debussy for soloist and orchestra, his Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra from 1889. Never performed during Debussy’s lifetime, a victim of a snafu at its scheduled premiere, and apparently forgotten during a decade of composing even more noteworthy works, the work is a piano concerto in every way but name. It’s a great vehicle for the poised Andsnes to display his wares: dazzling technique, panache, and riveting energy.

Edward Gardner conducting the New York Philharmonic with Leif Ove Andsnes (piano); photo: Chris Lee.

This collaboration between soloist and conductor is seamless, the tempos chosen on the lithe side (a good thing given the somewhat long-windedness of Debussy here). The Fantasie makes a sensible follow-up to the Sibelius, sharing with it a forward-looking approach to harmony and orchestration, but contrasting in mood and sensibility. Impressively delineating and clarifying Debussy’s dense orchestration, Gardner draws elegance and delicacy from the Philharmonic’s players, while Andsnes finds point and focus in the endless undulations and arpeggiations in Debussy’s showy piano writing.

The evening’s main course, Béla Bartók’s towering Concerto for Orchestra from 1943, one of the defining masterpiece’s of twentieth century orchestral music, was a tremendous success and this electric, detailed reading should solidify Gardner as a conductor to seek out. Not a concerto for a single soloist, Bartók’s five movement symphony-like piece is called a concerto for orchestra because throughout the piece, he places the various sections of the orchestra in relief, and solos are interspersed amongst all of the orchestra’s main players, adding up to a dramatic work of richly varied textures and a broad sound palette.

Bartók gives each section of the orchestra a moment to shine, and shine brightly the Philharmonic’s personnel do under the baton of Gardner. He knows what he wants to hear, and visibly manages and encourages in order to achieve his desired results, plotting a viscerally impactful performance of Bartók’s colorful score. The woodwinds and brass choirs especially impress, the latter finding just the right balance between an edgy, pointed approach and a round, luscious intonation, bringing the exciting finale to a satisfying, chest pounding conclusion.


The New York Philharmonic in concert at David Geffen Hall on April 26 and 28, 2018. Edward Gardner, conductor; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano.

SIBELIUS Pohjola’s Daughter

DEBUSSY Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra

BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra

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Cover: Edward Gardner conducting the New York Philharmonic; photo: Chris Lee.


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