Aspen Times Weekly: A Baroque ‘Jam Session’ |

Aspen Times Weekly: A Baroque ‘Jam Session’

by Andrew Travers
Published: Lynn Goldsmith/Special to Aspen Times Weekly

If You Go …

What: A Baroque Evening with Nicholas McGegan, presented by the Aspen Music Festival and School

When: Wednesday, Aug. 5, 8 p.m.

Where: Harris Concert Hall

How much: $65

Tickets and more info:

It’s not often you hear a world-renowned classical musician and conductor dropping Elton John references and referring to a performance of Bach as a “jam session.”

But that’s what listeners have come to expect from Nicholas McGegan, the irreverent harpsichordist and champion of Baroque music who has made a name for himself playing period instruments.

McGegan, music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, returns to the Aspen stage at Harris Concert Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 5. The Englishman’s annual recitals, highlighting the diverse applications of the harpsichord and the intricacies of Baroque compositions, have become a cherished yearly tradition at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

A native of Sawbridgeworth, in southeast England, McGegan studied music at Cambridge in the 1970s. In his second year, an instructor fond of the Baroque period lent him an 18th-century flute. The teacher happened to have a tenant, the late Christopher Hogwood, who was founding a Baroque orchestra and brought McGegan was on board to perform and record. His passion for the work has remained through the decades since.

McGegan is enthusiastic about the music and — a rarity among composers — equally enthusiastic about discussing it with the audience. His passionate addresses between the pieces at festival shows help put the uninitiated listener at ease and add to the aficionado’s appreciation.

He characterizes Baroque music as the jazz of the 18th century, noting the sheet music offers hints but not necessarily exact specifications on how to perform a piece. On his harpsichord, he plays the bass parts with his left hand, while “my right is playing the first thing that comes to my head.”

“I’m making stuff up with my right hand, because a lot of this baroque music is a lot more like jazz,” he said recently from California. “It’s not so organized as later music. So I’ll be making up a lot of what I play, which is great, it keeps it fresh and you’ll never hear it again.”

The Aspen Music Festival recital will also feature Adele Anthony on violin and Narek Hakhnazaryan on cello. They will be performing Telemann’s “Les nations,” Bocchrini’s Cello Concert in B-flat major, Bach’s Violin Concerto in G minor and Rameau’s suite from “Les Indes galantes.” McGegan will both play and conduct.

“[The harpsichord] doesn’t have pedals so I’ll be playing it standing up,” he said. “Like Elton John. … I’m a good time.”

The way such works invite improvisation, unlike later and modern classical compositions, has kept McGegan creatively alive through his long career.

“It’s one of the reasons I like it so much,” he says. “We simply can’t microwave the piece. We have what’s written down but there’s still more to do. It’s not a finished product. … Any time one of the musicians does something differently I can respond to that. I’m not reading from a pre-ordained script, so if they start improvising I go with it.”

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