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Edward Gardner: A Cotswold Success Story

PUBLISHED: 13:20 31 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:04 20 February 2013

Edward Gardner

Edward Gardner

Edward Gardner's ascent from chorister at King's School in Gloucester to his current role as a musical director of English National opera has to be one of the Cotswolds' biggest success stories. he returns this month to conduct the Halle orchestra...

When Edward Gardner conducts The Hall orchestra at Cheltenham Music Festival this month, it will be something of a homecoming. Born in Gloucester and a chorister at King's School until the age of 13, his earliest experiences of professional music came courtesy of the Cotswolds' festivals. But this concert marks the first time Edward has been back performing as an adult. "If you consider the fact that my first musical experiences were in the Three Choirs Festival, to be able to come back to the Cheltenham Town Hall and for the Cheltenham Festival is wonderful," he says.


From King's, he went on to a music scholarship at Eton and from there to Cambridge where he was a choral scholar in the King's College Choir. Always destined for a professional career in music, it was an incident at Salzburg Festival in 1999 that helped him on his way. Still a student at the Royal Academy, Edward was asked if he would stand in when a musician became ill. He agreed instantly, he says modestly, "thanks to bare-faced bravado... and then I had to practise all night."


After serving as an assistant conductor to Mark Elder at The Hall, he became music director of Glyndebourne on Tour, before taking up his current post as music director of English National Opera. Among other aims, he is determined to continue to broaden the appeal of opera: "There's an excellence about what happens on stage that people confuse with elitism," he says. "But once they're in that world as an audience member, people tend to come back. The ENO audience is very varied; it's relatively casual and very uncorporate; we take that very seriously."



Where do you live and why?


I live in Faringdon, London, because I've found a fantastic flat there, and I can walk to the Coliseum - the theatre where I work - which is a great luxury: I'm very lucky. Eventually, I hope to move to somewhere like Primrose Hill or Hampstead, where the illusion is that you're in a village. Despite having travelled all over the world, I still think London is the most extraordinary city of all - but there can be disadvantages: the pace is very quick and it's hard to get around. I notice, when I come back to the Cotswolds, that my shoulders drop and I breathe a little more easily.



How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?


I was born in Gloucester and lived here all through my childhood. My parents moved to the area because of my dad's work: he ran the psychology department for the NHS at Coney Hill. They've always been wonderfully supportive and I know how much they put themselves out there for me during my education; I hope what I do now is a validation for them.



What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?


In between jobs a couple of years ago, I came back and stayed at the Lygon Arms in Broadway and that was just amazing. I didn't take my scores with me; I left London behind; and I just walked around the beautiful countryside, ate wonderful food, and felt incredibly pampered. It's very boutique-y but it's lovely, and Broadway itself is so pristine.


In reality, though, rarely do I get a weekend: this is a six-day week job! The closest I ever get to 9-5 is when I'm in rehearsals for opera, but it's the variety that keeps me going. I also travel for five months of the year. This spring, I did a huge tour of the States, followed by Sweden, Norway and Germany. My girlfriend [Alison Balsom, the trumpeter] also travels for her work but, if you're organised, you can cook it long-term so you manage some great free time together.



If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?


On the London side, maybe just an hour away, so I could have my gin and tonic on my verandah by 7 o'clock, after a day at work, in a completely different environment. It would be lovely to have a few acres of land so I could feel lost in my own countryside.



Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?


I wouldn't mind doing half my time in the countryside - my relaxing time - but I could never live there exclusively. The assumption people make, when I say I'm from Gloucestershire, is that I'm from a very rural place, but I've always been city-based.



What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?


The cathedral. Gloucester is not the most beautiful city - there are areas that are very run down - but the cathedral is one of the most inspiring buildings I know. To have had my first musical education built around that was a huge privilege: Howells, Gurney, Elgar were part of my childhood. The man who made it all for me was John Sanders, the organist. Whenever I do British music even now, I'm so sad that he died so young because I would love him to be there. The first time I did Gerontius, I went to his house in Ross-on-Wye and learned the score with him. He had played the organ for Sumsion; Sumsion had played the organ for Elgar. You feel you're two steps away from these wonderful musicians.



... and the worst?


I hate to say a negative about the Cotswolds, but when I went to a school that was close to London, the variety of the arts that I could get at my fingertips was amazing. As for Eton itself, even a non-musician would say the music there is completely extraordinary. They give incredible music scholarships - up to 100 percent - and I think I had one of those. I was extremely fortunate in that my parents enabled me to go in the direction I wanted; I'm sure there are Elgars and Howells in deprived parts of the country - such as some parts of Gloucester - who will simply never be found.



What's the most under-rated thing about the Cotswolds?


To have daily services in three great cathedrals, almost within walking distance of each other [Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester] - and then another one in Tewkesbury Abbey - is a privilege. The Gloucester choir is on very, very good form at the moment, with Adrian Partington having become music director.


I also wonder how many people know about the free private education choral scholars receive. As far as I'm aware, my parents found out about it by word of mouth; if you're not in the system, you might never get to know about these opportunities.



What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?


Food is incredibly important to me. I learned early on that, when I'm travelling and feeling lonely in a hotel room in a foreign city, the one thing I can do really well is to eat! In the Cotswolds, I'd have asparagus, followed by a roast leg of lamb, a plum tart, and local cheeses. I often eat very late at night, which is meant to be disastrous but has never done me any damage yet. Before a big show, I try to do what an athlete would do, which is to eat slow-burn carbohydrates, like pasta, a couple of hours before. If you don't, you can feel your mind wandering.



What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?


The sun streaming in to Gloucester Cathedral through one of the stained glass windows on a summer's day feels unique. As a boy, I spent the first couple of years just staring around me at this huge vacuum of space; but that meant that by the time I came to performing solos, the sheer size had ceased to be daunting. And there's some comfort in that huge acoustic, knowing that it's just rolling around.


Nowadays, we can be performing for audiences of up to 3,000, but I never find that daunting either. As a conductor, fundamentally your relationship is with an orchestra not with your audience. I love my relationship with the orchestra at ENO, but guest conducting can be very different. Colin Davis once described it as blind dates: two big personalities (a conductor and an orchestra) with no idea of how they're going to get on.



What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?


Tewkesbury Abbey, where I performed as a boy. The fact that the town of Tewkesbury is so small, and this extraordinary abbey is so huge, takes your breath away. It's very different from Gloucester, which is exoskeletal; around the nave and the choir you have these wonderful chapels, high galleries, different areas of style, whereas Tewkesbury feels much more like one room.



What would you never do in the Cotswolds?


Cheese rolling - not even for a Gloucester cheese! You don't have to be too prissy about conducting, but you do have to remember that, if you break something in your arms badly, you could do yourself some long-term damage. I'd love to go skiing but I'm slightly reticent about that, too.



Starter homes or executive properties?


I'm sure there's a middle ground between local people being able to afford housing, and not destroying the flavour or the amount of countryside: I guess that's what everyone seeks. I've always lived in the city within the countryside and, in a way, I've had the best of both worlds. If you go towards Sandhurst, you can be in the countryside around a mile of the centre of Gloucester.



If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?


When I'm away from home, I take my laptop to listen to the BBC. It completely stops me from being homesick. I love listening to Radio 4, or to a good sporting event. I used to go to Gloucester Rugby after evensong on a Wednesday night as a kid, and I'm a big Arsenal supporter. My best friend is now deputy head at Cheltenham College, and this year I'm going to Cheltenham Cricket Festival [July 12-24, in the college grounds], which fits in because it's just a week before my concert.



What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?


Get in a car, drive around and discover it for yourself because there's a lot that's hidden. We're scared of being proud of our heritage as a nation, but we should go out and celebrate buildings such as our cathedrals.



And which book should they read?


It should be something that inspires you. I've got The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross - a history of 20th century classical music - by my bedside at the moment.



Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?


Around the Forest of Dean. My parents used to have a holiday house in Blakeney, in a big dip in the valley; we'd walk in the forest around it.



Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?


The festivals. Cheltenham Music Festival is of a quality any major city would be proud of. And then there are the Three Choirs Festivals, which are extremely special to me because they were my first experience of professional music-making: I was eight years old and we did Mahler 8. I'm often asked whether singing in a choir from such a young age has made me disciplined. The answer is that I organise my work time meticulously - and then I'm a complete disaster about everything else!



If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?


I'm very interested in the psychology of a conductor's first half-hour with orchestras. I'd like to sit at the back and really feel how that relationship is formed. What you do in that time as a conductor - and you do it through instinct and experience - sets the pattern.



With whom would you most like to have a cider?


I would love to have met Beethoven, and I'd particularly like to talk to him about the


Missa Solemnis, which is a piece I find very difficult. I know it is a great piece, but I don't


really know what it's about; I don't know what it's describing; I don't understand its shape, though I'd love to. You can never say, 'This is exactly how Mahler or Bach or Beethoven would have wanted it'; but you try within yourself - within what you do as a musician - to find what you think they were looking for when they first wrote the piece.



Edward Gardner will be conducting The Hall in the Hall Finale, with Vilde Frang on violin, on Saturday, July 17 at Cheltenham Town Hall. The programme will combine Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor and Sibelius's Symphony Number 5 in E flat major with Britten's Four Sea Interludes, which were premiered at the very first Cheltenham Music Festival in 1945; and Thomas Ads' stunning re-working of material from his first opera Powder Her Face, heard for the first time in Cheltenham in 1995. For more information on Cheltenham Music Festival, from July 3-18, visit cheltenhamfestivals.com or ring the box office on 0844 576 8970



Edward Gardner conducts Madam Butterfly and L'Amour de loin with English National Opera at the London Coliseum until July 11; www.eno.org,0871 911 0200.


When Edward Gardner conducts The Hall orchestra at Cheltenham Music Festival this month, it will be something of a homecoming. Born in Gloucester and a chorister at King's School until the age of 13, his earliest experiences of professional music came courtesy of the Cotswolds' festivals. But this concert marks the first time Edward has been back performing as an adult. "If you consider the fact that my first musical experiences were in the Three Choirs Festival, to be able to come back to the Cheltenham Town Hall and for the Cheltenham Festival is wonderful," he says.


From King's, he went on to a music scholarship at Eton and from there to Cambridge where he was a choral scholar in the King's College Choir. Always destined for a professional career in music, it was an incident at Salzburg Festival in 1999 that helped him on his way. Still a student at the Royal Academy, Edward was asked if he would stand in when a musician became ill. He agreed instantly, he says modestly, "thanks to bare-faced bravado... and then I had to practise all night."


After serving as an assistant conductor to Mark Elder at The Hall, he became music director of Glyndebourne on Tour, before taking up his current post as music director of English National Opera. Among other aims, he is determined to continue to broaden the appeal of opera: "There's an excellence about what happens on stage that people confuse with elitism," he says. "But once they're in that world as an audience member, people tend to come back. The ENO audience is very varied; it's relatively casual and very uncorporate; we take that very seriously."



Where do you live and why?


I live in Faringdon, London, because I've found a fantastic flat there, and I can walk to the Coliseum - the theatre where I work - which is a great luxury: I'm very lucky. Eventually, I hope to move to somewhere like Primrose Hill or Hampstead, where the illusion is that you're in a village. Despite having travelled all over the world, I still think London is the most extraordinary city of all - but there can be disadvantages: the pace is very quick and it's hard to get around. I notice, when I come back to the Cotswolds, that my shoulders drop and I breathe a little more easily.



How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?


I was born in Gloucester and lived here all through my childhood. My parents moved to the area because of my dad's work: he ran the psychology department for the NHS at Coney Hill. They've always been wonderfully supportive and I know how much they put themselves out there for me during my education; I hope what I do now is a validation for them.



What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?


In between jobs a couple of years ago, I came back and stayed at the Lygon Arms in Broadway and that was just amazing. I didn't take my scores with me; I left London behind; and I just walked around the beautiful countryside, ate wonderful food, and felt incredibly pampered. It's very boutique-y but it's lovely, and Broadway itself is so pristine.


In reality, though, rarely do I get a weekend: this is a six-day week job! The closest I ever get to 9-5 is when I'm in rehearsals for opera, but it's the variety that keeps me going. I also travel for five months of the year. This spring, I did a huge tour of the States, followed by Sweden, Norway and Germany. My girlfriend [Alison Balsom, the trumpeter] also travels for her work but, if you're organised, you can cook it long-term so you manage some great free time together.



If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?


On the London side, maybe just an hour away, so I could have my gin and tonic on my verandah by 7 o'clock, after a day at work, in a completely different environment. It would be lovely to have a few acres of land so I could feel lost in my own countryside.



Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?


I wouldn't mind doing half my time in the countryside - my relaxing time - but I could never live there exclusively. The assumption people make, when I say I'm from Gloucestershire, is that I'm from a very rural place, but I've always been city-based.



What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?


The cathedral. Gloucester is not the most beautiful city - there are areas that are very run down - but the cathedral is one of the most inspiring buildings I know. To have had my first musical education built around that was a huge privilege: Howells, Gurney, Elgar were part of my childhood. The man who made it all for me was John Sanders, the organist. Whenever I do British music even now, I'm so sad that he died so young because I would love him to be there. The first time I did Gerontius, I went to his house in Ross-on-Wye and learned the score with him. He had played the organ for Sumsion; Sumsion had played the organ for Elgar. You feel you're two steps away from these wonderful musicians.



... and the worst?


I hate to say a negative about the Cotswolds, but when I went to a school that was close to London, the variety of the arts that I could get at my fingertips was amazing. As for Eton itself, even a non-musician would say the music there is completely extraordinary. They give incredible music scholarships - up to 100 percent - and I think I had one of those. I was extremely fortunate in that my parents enabled me to go in the direction I wanted; I'm sure there are Elgars and Howells in deprived parts of the country - such as some parts of Gloucester - who will simply never be found.



What's the most under-rated thing about the Cotswolds?


To have daily services in three great cathedrals, almost within walking distance of each other [Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester] - and then another one in Tewkesbury Abbey - is a privilege. The Gloucester choir is on very, very good form at the moment, with Adrian Partington having become music director.


I also wonder how many people know about the free private education choral scholars receive. As far as I'm aware, my parents found out about it by word of mouth; if you're not in the system, you might never get to know about these opportunities.



What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?


Food is incredibly important to me. I learned early on that, when I'm travelling and feeling lonely in a hotel room in a foreign city, the one thing I can do really well is to eat! In the Cotswolds, I'd have asparagus, followed by a roast leg of lamb, a plum tart, and local cheeses. I often eat very late at night, which is meant to be disastrous but has never done me any damage yet. Before a big show, I try to do what an athlete would do, which is to eat slow-burn carbohydrates, like pasta, a couple of hours before. If you don't, you can feel your mind wandering.



What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?


The sun streaming in to Gloucester Cathedral through one of the stained glass windows on a summer's day feels unique. As a boy, I spent the first couple of years just staring around me at this huge vacuum of space; but that meant that by the time I came to performing solos, the sheer size had ceased to be daunting. And there's some comfort in that huge acoustic, knowing that it's just rolling around.


Nowadays, we can be performing for audiences of up to 3,000, but I never find that daunting either. As a conductor, fundamentally your relationship is with an orchestra not with your audience. I love my relationship with the orchestra at ENO, but guest conducting can be very different. Colin Davis once described it as blind dates: two big personalities (a conductor and an orchestra) with no idea of how they're going to get on.



What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?


Tewkesbury Abbey, where I performed as a boy. The fact that the town of Tewkesbury is so small, and this extraordinary abbey is so huge, takes your breath away. It's very different from Gloucester, which is exoskeletal; around the nave and the choir you have these wonderful chapels, high galleries, different areas of style, whereas Tewkesbury feels much more like one room.



What would you never do in the Cotswolds?


Cheese rolling - not even for a Gloucester cheese! You don't have to be too prissy about conducting, but you do have to remember that, if you break something in your arms badly, you could do yourself some long-term damage. I'd love to go skiing but I'm slightly reticent about that, too.



Starter homes or executive properties?


I'm sure there's a middle ground between local people being able to afford housing, and not destroying the flavour or the amount of countryside: I guess that's what everyone seeks. I've always lived in the city within the countryside and, in a way, I've had the best of both worlds. If you go towards Sandhurst, you can be in the countryside around a mile of the centre of Gloucester.



If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?


When I'm away from home, I take my laptop to listen to the BBC. It completely stops me from being homesick. I love listening to Radio 4, or to a good sporting event. I used to go to Gloucester Rugby after evensong on a Wednesday night as a kid, and I'm a big Arsenal supporter. My best friend is now deputy head at Cheltenham College, and this year I'm going to Cheltenham Cricket Festival [July 12-24, in the college grounds], which fits in because it's just a week before my concert.



What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?


Get in a car, drive around and discover it for yourself because there's a lot that's hidden. We're scared of being proud of our heritage as a nation, but we should go out and celebrate buildings such as our cathedrals.



And which book should they read?


It should be something that inspires you. I've got The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross - a history of 20th century classical music - by my bedside at the moment.



Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?


Around the Forest of Dean. My parents used to have a holiday house in Blakeney, in a big dip in the valley; we'd walk in the forest around it.



Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?


The festivals. Cheltenham Music Festival is of a quality any major city would be proud of. And then there are the Three Choirs Festivals, which are extremely special to me because they were my first experience of professional music-making: I was eight years old and we did Mahler 8. I'm often asked whether singing in a choir from such a young age has made me disciplined. The answer is that I organise my work time meticulously - and then I'm a complete disaster about everything else!



If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?


I'm very interested in the psychology of a conductor's first half-hour with orchestras. I'd like to sit at the back and really feel how that relationship is formed. What you do in that time as a conductor - and you do it through instinct and experience - sets the pattern.



With whom would you most like to have a cider?


I would love to have met Beethoven, and I'd particularly like to talk to him about the


Missa Solemnis, which is a piece I find very difficult. I know it is a great piece, but I don't


really know what it's about; I don't know what it's describing; I don't understand its shape, though I'd love to. You can never say, 'This is exactly how Mahler or Bach or Beethoven would have wanted it'; but you try within yourself - within what you do as a musician - to find what you think they were looking for when they first wrote the piece.



Edward Gardner will be conducting The Hall in the Hall Finale, with Vilde Frang on violin, on Saturday, July 17 at Cheltenham Town Hall. The programme will combine Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor and Sibelius's Symphony Number 5 in E flat major with Britten's Four Sea Interludes, which were premiered at the very first Cheltenham Music Festival in 1945; and Thomas Ads' stunning re-working of material from his first opera Powder Her Face, heard for the first time in Cheltenham in 1995. For more information on Cheltenham Music Festival, from July 3-18, visit cheltenhamfestivals.com or ring the box office on 0844 576 8970



Edward Gardner conducts Madam Butterfly and L'Amour de loin with English National Opera at the London Coliseum until July 11; www.eno.org,0871 911 0200.

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