Ben Gernon - BBC Philharmonic Guest Conductor is enjoying life in Alderley Edge
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 February 2018
In a lEAFY lane in Alderley Edge you’ll find the home of a young man who is going to make a big impact on the classical music world. He’s Ben Gernon, and if you’re a classical fan and don’t already know that name, you soon will.
Ben, 28, is one of the youngest conductors ever to hold a titled post with a major BBC orchestra: he was appointed last year (2017) as Principal Guest Conductor of the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic. It’s a demanding role, with music-making in the studio at MediaCity in Salford and public performances around the country, and the first concert he’s giving in its flagship Bridgewater Hall series in Manchester since his appointment is coming up in March.
Ben and his girlfriend, Mary, moved from Sweden to Cheshire last summer – in one sense it was a homecoming to the region, as, though he was born in Essex and raised in Shropshire, his father is from Bolton and as a child Ben often visited his grandmother there.
Now he and Mary, an oboist whom he met at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama several years ago, have made Alderley Edge their home, in a house near to the station.
Ben’s an outdoor guy, and loves walking in the countryside (and running), so the Cheshire town had a strong pull for him. ‘It took a long time to find the right house,’ he says. ‘We’re renting at the moment, but hoping possibly to buy.
‘The stories of Alderley Edge fascinate me. I’ve just started re-reading Alan Garner’s books, based on the legends of the Wizard of Alderley.’
He and Mary like to visit tea rooms and take the ‘Wizard Walk’ up the back of the Edge and down again – ‘We tend to do that about twice a week’ – but, asked for their favourite Cheshire beauty spot, they choose the Macclesfield Forest.
Ben’s musical story began when he was aged around six. His parents were musicians and dad conducted a brass band: they got him a little electronic keyboard for Christmas. Later his dad’s band was short of a tuba player: no one else would try it, so he took up the instrument, and that, along with the piano, became his big interest.
‘There was always music in our house – recordings or the radio – and I had a twin sister who was into dance, so it was very noisy,’ he recalls.
His first experience of fronting a concert was in Year 6, when a teacher persuaded him to conduct the primary school orchestra, and at grammar school he did the same. He was given a free rein and says it was good experience but added: ‘It’s very hard conducting your own teenage friends!’
As a tuba player he joined the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra youth orchestra, where he worked under Sakari Oramo (then CBSO principal conductor, now in the top job with the BBC Symphony Orchestra). ‘I can remember doing Stravinsky’s The Firebird with him,’ he says. ‘I was totally spellbound by his control of the orchestra. That cemented things – I wanted to be a conductor.’
His tuba playing got him a place at the Guildhall School. ‘When I was interviewed, I said I didn’t really want to be a tuba player, but to make it as a conductor. They said: “Prove it!” – so I set up an orchestra of my own.
‘My tuba tutor, who played with the London Symphony Orchestra and had worked with all the great conductors, taught me the really practical side – how you help an orchestra to play at its best.’
He was also introduced to the great maestro Sir Colin Davis and learned from his example and advice. ‘He had amazing authority: he was always calm and clear, and an orchestra would give their all for him.’
After the Guildhall he entered the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition. ‘That didn’t go very well for me, which was a shock, and I did nothing for six months after it. But then I tried the Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award (which he won by unanimous vote of the jury) – and the next day I had several agents on the phone, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic offering me their Dudamel Fellowship.’ So in the 2013-14 season he worked in California with the dynamic Gustavo ‘The Dude’ Dudamel.
Since then he’s been busy. He’s conducted the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl open-air auditorium, and top orchestras in Vienna, Stockholm, Houston and Chicago, with dates also in Oslo, Berlin, Prague, Munich, Stuttgart and Toulouse, as well as BBC orchestras, and for Glyndebourne Touring Opera, Stuttgart Opera, the Royal Swedish Opera – and his debut in London with English National Opera is coming soon.
In LA he worked on ‘multi-media enhanced’ performances for schools, and in London on ‘symphonic cinema’ shows with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. When he was appointed to the BBC Philharmonic, general manager Simon Webb referred to his passion for new music, for reaching new audiences, and for exploring new technologies, making him their ‘perfect match’.
Ben says: ‘There’s a great can-do attitude here. It was one of the orchestras I was most nervous about meeting beforehand, but it’s worked out really well, and I’ve done many concerts now when they have simply surprised me.’
His Bridgewater Hall programme on March 3rd includes Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 – ‘hugely exciting’ – and Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 with American soloist Richard Goode, after the first UK performance of a piece called This Midnight Hour by Anna Clyne. He says it ‘has bite and relentless energy … and it’s going to start and finish with a bang!’
He’s also with them there in May, with Beethoven, Weber, Wagner and the Horn Concerto by Wolfgang Rihm – another UK premiere, with the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal horn, Stefan Dohr, as soloist.