Thursday, July 25, 2019

Eton Riverside

An old Etonian is taking over: a middle-aged white bloke with lots of charm, appointed by a tiny number of people, without any say from more than 99% of those over whom he'll wield life-changing power.

A familiar story, no? But while the newspapers are preoccupied, understandably, with the old Etonian heading into Downing Street, another alumnus of the school has scooped another head position over the Thames: Edward Gardner, who has been signed up by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to be its new chief conductor. (Told you so.) He only has school, not university, in common with Boris Johnson, as he went to Cambridge, not Oxford. Oxford produces politicians. Cambridge produces conductors, which is way preferable, depending on your point of view.

Edward Gardner
photo: Ben Ealovega

As music director of ENO, Ed wielded the baton for some glorious operatic performances - his Meistersinger, The Flying Dutchman, Rosenkavalier and more were among my most memorable trips to the Coliseum. He has proved his mettle time and again in the great choral works like the Verdi Requiem, Tippett's A Child of Our Time and, at his Bergen Philharmonic, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Unlike the pifflepaffle exponent who has got the keys to the country, Ed can start his own new post with every expectation that he will rise to the challenge ahead with great aplomb and convince us all that he was the right person to install there.

The appointment of an English conductor at Brexit time says much. The LPO's CEO Tim Walker, from Australia, has been interviewed in the past appearing to be in favour of Brexit. Hopefully he's woken up to the mistake now, but if he hasn't, he soon will, and with Boris Johnson in No. 10 it's a bit late in any case. So, one can't help speculating on the reasons for this choice. Much as I like Ed and unfailingly enjoy his performances, I personally was still hoping they would appoint an equally deserving conductor who happened to be female - ideally Susanna Mälkki or Karina Canellakis (whom I'm told the orchestra adored and who got rave reviews for her concert with them last year). This could have sent out a positive, inclusive, adventurous, positive message and ushered in an exciting new era...

Is it a question of the changing face of orchestras? A presentation of "best of British" being perceived as requiring a British figurehead in some way? I doubt it. My hunch is that with the ACE funding priorities changing radically, and a likely crash in public finances once we've actually departed the EU (lots of jobs will be lost and tax revenues will plummet), the issue of fundraising is soon going to be even more important - at a time, too, when Britain's image internationally will be badly tarnished; they already think we're mad, and with good reason. International support is going to be absolutely vital and it's possible that a different cohort of donors will have to be magicked into the fold. This would indicate a move to a more American-style approach in which the principal conductor is a lynchpin for, essentially, schmoozing. Ed's personal charm would stand him, and them, in good stead under such circumstances.

The bottom line with any principal conductor appointment, though, has got to be musical chemistry. An orchestra is a living organism made up of a large number of expert performers and the relationship between it and its principal conductor is like a marriage (I know this is a cliché, but it happens to be true. If you want some insight into how this all works, I recommend Tom Service's book Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras.) The best conductor on the face of the planet cannot ever be the ideal person for every single orchestra that sits in front of him - just as not every Strad is the right instrument for every single violinist. Things work, or they don't. They can develop. They can change. They can grow. They can grow together. But the essential match does have to be right.

With some irony, I realise I experimented with a blind-date review format for a concert by the LPO under Ed's baton at Snape a little while ago, here.
Imagine a spouse who is used to - and loves - long, deep, intense conversations, in which each word is controlled with immense precision and the underlying philosophy must be considered at every moment...suddenly taking a walk with someone who laces up his boots, links his arm through hers and points out the dramas among passers by, the green parrots flying about and the sun sparkling on the water and says "great, so what do you want for lunch?"
This is an orchestra that still, in 2019, carries the pride and the sound quality that was shaped by Klaus Tennstedt's Mahler. After a long stint with Vladimir Jurowski - who by the time he leaves in 2021 will have been its longest-serving chief conductor ever - there is nothing that it cannot do or play or adapt to. There may be cliques, personality clashes and petty fights off-stage, but that's equally true in every company and every orchestra (what is the matter with our orchestras - why on earth do some of them not have HR managers?). When it comes to the concert, though, they pull together every time. The one thing they have to rely on is their artistic reputation which, aside from a teeny blip arising from a crazy political situation in the early '90s, has been an unblemished record in the top rank. The orchestra of Tennstedt, Haitink, Solti, Masur and Jurowski wants to stay international.

Orchestra politics the world over, meanwhile, are notoriously thorny and often, as I watch from a safe distance, seem more than a bit daft. There can be threats, excuses, twists, slipperiness and high dudgeon that would once have been news. But now most of the press don't give a flying f*** because they've got bigger things to worry about, and the only journalists so far who do think this appointment is a story have been very positive. But when the CBSO musicians (and chorus, audience and critics - !) are able to help choose their own music directors - and they do keep on just picking unknowns like Andris Nelsons and Mirga Grazynite-Tyla and turning them into megastars - frankly London musicians get very little say in the equivalent situation. This still puzzles me, because those are the people who have to create that chemistry. I do think that leaving them so little input can store up trouble.

Ed has a chance to win over any nay-sayers - they are bound, after all, to exist for anyone appointed to this type of position anywhere - and prove that the management has got it right. I gladly cheer him on as he takes up the post and I look forward to many fresh, exciting concerts - with sun sparkling on the water of the Thames.