The art of
c nducting
| Sir John Eliot Gardiner

by Matthew Studdert-Kennedy, Jeff Schiltz
Sir John Eliot Gardiner laughing, wearing a purple shirt

Ahead of his performance with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg together with the Monteverdi Choir at the Philharmonie, we sat down with Sir John Eliot Gardiner for a new episode of our video series "The Art of Conducting" He talked to us about how the repertoire affects the gestures of conducting and music making, the sound of «period instruments» in today's orchestras, about the similarities between managing a bio-farm & leading an orchestra and much more!

Were there any experiences in your childhood that made you the conductor you are now?

I've been thinking about conducting from the age of 12 or 13 and was observing other conductors and thinking, “Oh God, I'd love to do that” and thinking, “I'm not sure that's the way to do it”. And “could I do it better or could I ever get it as good as that?” I mean I played violin and then viola in Chelsea Opera Group under Colin Davis, and that was a wonderful experience. He introduced me to Berlioz, his sense of the organic kind of interconnection of voices and theatrical workings of the music with the orchestration of Berlioz, which is so original. That was huge lesson to me. I guess I was very fortunate in that I grew up in a family of amateur musicians. But we sang a lot. We sang at Grace Times before meals. And my parents, all through the war, they sang with a few friends. They sang the bird four part and five-part masses every Sunday to keep their spirits up. And then music was tied in my family to the ritual of the seasons and the agricultural year because my father was a farmer and a planter of trees. I'm immensely indebted to my parents for giving me that childhood. I mean, the standard composers for me when I was little were Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons and Weelkes and but also Heinrich Schütz, Claudio Monteverdi, Purcell. And I learned music kind of chronologically, which was so wonderful because when you got to Bach and then Mozart, that felt glorious. I felt very modern, as it were. If you have that sense of progression, then each individual composer and each era is a world in itself and it has its own sound world. But it's wonderful to have that as a starting point. It is a way to really impregnate yourself with the sound world and the circumstances of music making of the period.

Is there any difference to the physicality of the way you make music, depending on the repertoire?

Yes, there is a difference in conducting a choir and an orchestra. But I try to minimize it because part of my aim is always to try and get an orchestra to imitate voices, to speak their lines. So, they use their embouchure if they are wind players and they use their bow speeds and bow position vis-à-vis the fingerboard and the bridge to give a sense of rhetoric, a sense of the underlying narration of the music. I try to make them as choral as possible, and I try to make my choir as orchestral as possible in terms of their agility, their virtuosity, their articulation as well. And it's wonderful if you can bring the two together. I mean, when we do Beethoven N°5, for example, in the middle of the last movement, they all sing "la liberté, la liberté" if they're not playing trombones, but the strings they play and sing at the same time. I mean, it's a thing of mine that the French influence on Beethoven is enormous. I think it's more to do with the affect rather than the style of the music that affects one's gestures. I mean with Stravinsky you need to have a Boulez-sian and clarity and precision of beat, which is totally inappropriate if you're doing Brahms. It needs to be flowing and you need to have a strong sense of rhythmical counterpoint because Brahms is all about twos against threes and about waltz rhythms and not just his Hungarian dances, but if you think of "Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen" from the German Requiem, that's a slow Wiener Waltzer. It needs to have a link to it. The gesture changes!

How far can you take the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg on the «period instruments» journey?

It must not be done in a negative way. It mustn’t be said, that shall not vibrate. I mean that is self-defeating because then you think “What's going to happen? Will it be horrible?”. I try to put it positively and say use your bows in a really lyrical and expressive way and vary the bows speed all the time depending on the phrase lengths and observe how slurs can from Mozart or earlier than Mozart onwards convey a soft beginning and a soft ending. And then an effluvium in the middle, a growth and an expressiveness which doesn't necessarily need the left hand. The left hand can vibrate from time to time, but it should be when you run out of other ideas, basically. It shouldn't be a negative thing at all. It should be a sense that it's an expressive device that could be used. But the transparency of the overall texture is immeasurably improved with less upper partials and less vibration. And then it's reserved for some very special moments.

Do you have a clear idea of the sound that you want to hear, or do you take the sound of the Orchestra and manipulate it?

It's a bit of both. I mean, guest conducting is a funny old thing. It's like dogs meeting and sniffing. An orchestra can be very put off by a conductor in the first five seconds and vice versa. Or it can grow. It can establish. It's your job as a conductor to listen and to adapt to the sound you're given and to go with it, to run with it. It's no point in being dictatorial and saying this is how it's going to be. That's just cramps everybody up. So, there's a kind of lovemaking which goes on which is very powerful if it comes off, but the chemistry is not always there. But I feel very good about it today.

Are there any similarities between leading an orchestra, or a choir, and running a bio-farm, or are they complementary?

They are complementary. I mean, they're not things that I've ever had to negotiate about my commitment to either because the deeply rooted passions of mine. I grew up on a farm. I learned about silviculture, about tree planting from my father, who was a passionate planter and grower of trees. I never wanted to lose that root or that connection, even though my elder brother inherited the farm and then sold it and I've been over the last 50 has tried to buy it back bit by bit. I haven't got it all because you're a steward, you're not an owner, you're a steward, you're a caretaker of the land. And you are a caretaker of your orchestra. Yes, I’m a caretaker of my two orchestras, the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and my Monteverdi choir. It needs nurture. Sounds a bit hooey, but both need nurture. The contact with the soil, with the grass, with the growing crops, with the animals is fundamentally important in a world that is losing its roots and where the pressures, economic and environmental, are enormous, and therefore the need to protect the environment and to pass it on in a better shape than you inherited is paramount. And I feel the same about music that I had the privilege of learning early music early on in my life. And it's expanded and expanded in terms of repertoire. But post-COVID and in this completely mad world we're in the moment, I feel an extra responsibility, an extra sense of commitment and re-devoting myself to making contact with not just my musicians, but with the public, with the listeners. Because the hunger, the need is greater than ever.

Do you have a favourite piece to conduct?

This sounds very trite, but any piece that I'm doing in a given moment becomes, in a way, the favourite piece. It's so important to invest all your affection and your knowledge, such as it is, to get under the skin of the music. And it's only when you do that that you have a fighting chance of bringing it forward into people's consciousness.

We’ve got something similar coming up soon at the Philharmonie: