Tough, thorny alt-conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner follows his own tempo

Conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner in 2010. He's on tour with his period-instrument ensemble.
Conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner in 2010. He's on tour with his period-instrument ensemble. (FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP / Getty Images)
Posted: November 13, 2011

The knighthood, the vast discography stretching from Monteverdi to Brahms, and the acclaim that has come with it are all tangible evidence that Sir John Eliot Gardiner, 68, is a pervasive presence throughout the European and American classical music world. Why, then, is he only now making his Philadelphia debut on a tour with his period-instrument ensemble, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique? Why has he never been asked to guest-conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra?

If ever there has been an alternative conducting career, it's his. "Think of conductors of my generation, Zubin Mehta, and musicians such as Pinchy Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman. . . . There's a huge stylistic gulf. It's absolutely night and day," he said in a recent phone interview.

His speedy tempos and vibratoless textures made detractors of conductors ranging from Daniel Barenboim to Michael Tilson Thomas. Obviously, the skeptics hadn't taken the measure of Gardiner's fierce personality or what he was really after with period instruments.

"I grew up with the recordings of Toscanini and adored them," he said. "They were maybe too hard-driven some of the time, but I loved the sense that the music is contemporary, that it's for our time, not deified and reverential."

Now, even the lush Philadelphia Orchestra occasionally, and convincingly, visits that side of performing tradition at the hands of such guest conductors such as Roger Norrington and Nicholas McGegan. And though Gardiner has conducted some of the big-five U.S. orchestras (Boston, New York, Chicago) and held chief-conductor positions in Germany and France, he sticks close to the ensembles he founded: the Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, and its enlarged version, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, which will play an all-Beethoven program Tuesday at the Kimmel Center.

It's an interesting time for him to return to Beethoven. If there's a sign of the times, it's the new Beethoven symphony recordings by Riccardo Chailly and the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra - fast, lean, and, not coincidentally, Gardiner-esque.

"Conductors aren't always very nice to each other, but Chailly has always been very supportive and complimentary," says Gardiner. "He's managed to turn quite a professorial German orchestra - they're all called professors, you know - into a very lithe, very athletic, very spirited band. I don't agree with everything ... but there are many things I do agree with."

No doubt that's partly because Gardiner's own Beethoven interpretations are less extreme these days. Tempos are more yielding; in his words, "There's less of a 'desperado' quality. . . . In the 1990s, we were working so hard to pin the butterfly to the wall."

And after much mutual skepticism, Gardiner agreed to a series of Beethoven concerts with the modern-instrument London Symphony Orchestra in recent years, achieving "a really interesting synthesis of period-instrument performance and the technical assurance of a modern orchestra."

So the battle is won? Says Gardiner, "It's never won."

Part of that is the continuing challenge of making period instruments work. As recently as a few years ago, he brought his orchestra to Carnegie Hall for Haydn's The Seasons - not without mishaps. And underneath the instrumental matters, there's Gardiner's tireless revisionism, often questioning if the notes that have come down to us are what the composer really wanted: In Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, he uses the opera's original between-scenes orchestral interludes before they were expanded to accommodate set changes.

He also tried to determine what sort of air the composer was breathing. Gardiner juxtaposes Brahms' symphonies with choral works that show how the composer's ear for voices translated into his orchestrations. Gardiner discovered that Beethoven all but quoted music of the French Revolution by now-forgotten names such as Méhul and Gossec. It's more than detective work: He sees these influences as allowing Beethoven to turn the symphony from a medium of entertainment to "a wordless epic."

Such research no doubt is possible because Gardiner has rarely been tied to the weekly subscription treadmill of traditional symphonic concerts. Starting with the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 that he conducted while still a student at Cambridge, he has made a roughly chronological march through the repertoire, often with specific periods devoted to specific composers. He contracts singers and instrumentalists according to what any given project demands, from his period-instrument production of Berlioz's Les Troyens to his Bach cantata pilgrimage, in which he, his Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists performed all of Bach's cantatas around the world to celebrate the turn of the millennium.

From that came another turning point. When Deutsche Grammophon pulled the plug on recording the Bach cantatas, he formed his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, to record his own ensembles. The discs are full of unexpected Gardiner touches. (Rather than using cover illustrations of Bach or his performing forces, Gardiner has portraits of Afghan and Pakistani refugees by award-winning Philadelphia-born photojournalist Steve McCurry.)

Gardiner grew up in a family with generations of successful farming in Dorset, where he was born. He can afford to be an individualist. And to speak his mind. You don't hear him bowing down to the great musical institutions of the world. He had mixed response to guest-conducting gigs in Boston and New York.

One conventional ensemble he loves is the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, but he praises it at the expense of others: "They have a raw sound for Czech music, and they play with huge heart - the opposite of Vienna, which has a wonderful, natural, melodic gift and charm, but the sound is like cream. It's frothy." Is it any wonder he has a reputation for being tough, even thorny?

Well, you never know. Philadelphia soprano Julianne Baird worked with Gardiner early on and had nothing good to say about the experience. But more recently, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang Les Troyens with Gardiner and described him as "an angel." Has he changed?

"I think I'm more sinned against than sinning," he says. "People love to pin labels and reputations on you, for being difficult or temperamental. I might've been a little bit like that in the past. . . ."

And now? What next?

Another project with his Monteverdi Choir. "I have to go back to my roots all the time. The old pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome . . . we're going to sing it back into existence with a cappella music from the 14th and 15th century. Just singers and a tuning fork."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at


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