Monday 13 February 2017

Ben Gernon in Manchester, Scotland and Salzburg

Ben Gernon and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Ben Gernon and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
The young British conductor Ben Gernon (aged 27) was recently announced as becoming the principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Gernon has appeared twice at the BBC Proms, and in 2013 won the Nestle and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, also becoming Dudamel Fellow with the LA Philharmonic. 

Gernon started his musical life as a tuba player in his local brass band conducted by his father. He went on to study tuba and conducting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Patrick Harrild and Sian Edwards respectively, and also cites Sir Colin Davis as a profoundly important figure in his musical development. He already has a couple of discs under his belt, so we look at those to see what his tenure at the BBC Philharmonic might herald.

Gernon will formally take up his position with the BBC Philharmonic in Autumn 2017, but has already built up an admirable relationship with the orchestra. He recently conducted a programme which included Walton's Viola Concerto and Malcolm Arnold's Electra with music by John Foulds and Frank Bridge, a programme which paired Debussy's La Mer with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 with Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 with Benjamin Grosvenor, as well as Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Not a bad mix! (and there is still a chance to catch him in action on BBC iPlayer)

Ben Gernon - Prokoviev Symphony no. 5 - Salzburg Festival
In 2013, Gernon won the Nestle and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, and the recording of Gernon's performance of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester has been issued as a CD by the Salzburg Festival. Prokofiev's symphony, written during the Second World War and his first since returning to Soviet Russia, is a complex and often dark piece, very far from the sort of Soviet realism expected of composers. Gernon makes the Andante first movement sober and thoughtful, there are moments of high drama but overall a feeling of steady exploration. Whilst there are some fine details from the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, it is Gernon's overall control of the large scale paragraphs which impresses. The Allegro marcato evokes the composer ballet Romeo and Juliet (not surprisingly as it uses discarded material), but though the players make it perky they bring an edge to it though not as satirical as a Shostakovich scherzo. Rhythms are crisp and tight, with great sense of movement and a suave trio. The Adagio is a combination of lyric beauty and neoclassical elegance, developing an interesting degree of complexity with a serious undertow. Gernon makes the Allegro giocoso finale quite a sober and thoughtful ending to the symphony, certainly not as mad-cap as David Nice's programme note implies, but there is a wonderful control of texture. You can still pick up the disc from Amazon.

In 2014, Gernon made his Proms debut with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a concert celebrating the 80th birthday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and Gernon's 2016 recording with the orchestra on Linn records showcases some of Davies most attractive works, the concert overture Ebb of Winter, Last door of light, Farewell to Stromness and An Orkney Wedding with sunrise, plus guitarist Sean Shibe playing the solo guitar piece Hill Runes (available from Amazon).

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