Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Blossom Music Center
July 20

An enthusiast whose joy carries over to the music.

What a pleasure to see someone who understands the vocabulary of Baroque and early classical music present an evening of Mozart and Haydn. Nicholas McGegan brought his considerable expertise along with an irrepressible buoyancy to an 18th-century program on Saturday that added some sparkle to a steamy summer night.

McGegan, 63, comes with an impressive and in some ways unusual pedigree. A well-regarded early music specialist, he has served as music director of the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for 27 years. He is also an accomplished opera conductor and prolific recording artist. Whatʼs most striking, though, are his many appearances with symphony orchestras – unusual for a maestro whose primary focus is working with chamber ensembles.

McGeganʼs performing schedule for this summer neatly encapsulates the breadth of his activities: leading the Orchestra of St. Lukeʼs in New York and the Arcadian Academy in La jolla; teaching and collaborating with stars like Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony at the Aspen Music Festival; and conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Given his extensive work with small ensembles, it wasn’t surprising to see him strike up the opening piece, Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 (K 319) like he was conducting a chamber group. The 50-piece strings and woodwinds aggregation from the Cleveland Orchestra responded with aplomb, playing with a light-hearted spirit and frothy effervescence. But the musicians had to fill in a lot of the details themselves, as McGegan didn’t so much conduct as guide them through the piece.

This is a typical approach in chamber music, where the players know a narrower repertoire intimately. In this case, with McGegan working from phrase to phrase and constantly urging the orchestra to catch up, the overall arc of the music suffered. The sound, however, was lustrous, with silken violins and tender woodwinds giving it a golden glow.

Setting a sharper tone.
The definition sharpened in the second piece, Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G major (K 313), mostly because the players followed the soloist, Cleveland Orchestra principal flutist Joshua Smith. Though his intonation suffered a bit on the high and low ends, Smith complemented the orchestra with a sound as smooth as butter, and showed some flair in the cadenzas, cleverly quoting Mozart’s Magic Flute. Used to playing with one of their own, his colleagues supported him with precision and elegance. And McGegan graciously took a backseat, setting a stately tempo but otherwise mostly staying out of the players’ way.

Back with a firm hand for the second half, McGegan set a brisk pace for Cimarosa’s Overture to The Secret Marriage. It seemed almost too controlled at the start, but opened up nicely with some particularly rich colors and a burst of fire at the end.

The concluding piece, Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, brought together all the best elements of the evening – great intelligence, lively energy, glowing sound – and added depth and texture for a satisfying finale. The opening drum roll quickly established a crisp tone that McGegan carried throughout, adding character with subtle shadings and swaying rhythms. Violinist Jung-Min Amy Lee, sitting in the concertmaster’s chair for the evening, added a fine violin solo in the second movement. By the third movement, the conductor was waving his arms like a windmill, propelling the piece with a momentum that was missing from the first half.

Whatever one thinks of his sound, McGegan is a show in himself, obviously taking great joy in his work as he bounds around the podium, sometimes literally hopping in time to the rhythms. His energy is infectious, adding zest and an air of enchantment to the music. In less knowledgeable hands, this could come across as forced or coy. With McGegan at the podium, it was a treat to watch a master at work.

For more on Nicholas McGegan: http://nicholasmcgegan.com/

For more on Joshua Smith: http://www.soloflute.com/

Joshua Smith photo by Nannette Bedway

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