Aspen Music Fest: Baroque with Nicholas McGegan
July 9, 2010
ASPEN – About a decade ago, at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago, Nicholas McGegan conducted all six of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerts in one concert. As in much of Baroque music, the instrumental configuration of the Brandenburg pieces varies from concerto to concerto, meaning there was dead space to fill while the musicians and instruments were properly arranged on-stage. So McGegan had to do what classical musicians often seem very loathe to do – speak to the audience.
For McGegan, it’s another in a long list of reasons to adore Baroque music.
“I hate concerts that are like going to a church or temple of classical music, where the audience has to be quiet,” McGegan said one day last week. “I’ve been to concerts where the people on-stage look like they’ve been recently mummified. And the audience has no chance. I think people should go to the concert and have a good time.”
For McGegan, a good time can mean talking to the listeners – even smiling at them – and playing up the numerous musical “jokes” he finds in centuries-old compositions. At that Ravinia performance of the Brandenburg Concertos, the fun even included an unanticipated moment of mischief, when the sprinklers went on at the outdoor venue, soaking the crowd.
“We got 20 bars into the first Brandenburg, and the computer suddenly said, ‘Turn on the sprinklers!’ he recalled. “People were getting their Champagne diluted. And we didn’t know what was going on. I was thinking, ‘We’ve just started and they’re already rioting.”
Last summer in Aspen, when McGegan conducted – and played harpsichord in – the Brandenburg Concertos, there were no such hijinks. With the concertos spread over two evenings, there wasn’t nearly as much time for McGegan to take the microphone. Still, McGegan, a 60-year-old Englishman with the demeanor and physical stature of a leprechaun, had his fun, practically dancing his way through the night and finding the magical glow in Bach’s compositions.
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On that particular occasion, much of the joy came from the musicians who joined McGegan on-stage, including husband-and-wife violinists Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony. McGegan, who has carved out a specialty of playing Baroque music on period instruments, plays the Brandenburg pieces often, but prominent soloists like Shaham are rarely featured in such chamber works.
“It’s a terrific experience for me, having these world-famous people on-stage,” he said. “It’s just jamming. It’s a Baroque jam session, really. And I get to sit down at the harpsichord and jam with them. That music is all about fun.”
McGegan and company reconvene the jam session on Tuesday, July 13, at Harris Hall. The concert, tabbed as a special event by the Aspen Music Festival, is titled A Baroque Evening with Nicholas McGegan, and features some of the crew from last year, including Shaham, Anthony and horn player John Zirbel. The program includes works by such composers of the 17th and early 18th century as Vivaldi, Telemann and Corelli – seven pieces in total, which should give McGegan, who is again featured on harpsichord, plenty of time to chat.
McGegan divides his conducting engagements about evenly between Baroque and non-Baroque music; this past Friday, he conducted the Aspen Chamber Symphony in an all-Mendelssohn program. But his most prominent career position has been as director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the biggest period instrument orchestra in the country, for 25 of its 30 years. He has also run a Handel Festival in Germany for 20 years, but is set to retire soon: “Dealing with German bureaucracy drives you nuts,” he said.
Not so Aspen, where McGegan has become a regular guest conductor over the past several years. Like many musicians, he sees the Aspen Festival as a place where old friends who pass each other for a night in concert halls around the world, can actually spend quality time together. “It’s like a fabulous cruise, where everyone’s stuck in the same place,” he said.
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A native of Sawbridgeworth, in southeast England, McGegan studied music as an undergraduate at Cambridge. In a mandatory second-year class about the acoustics of buildings and instruments, his instructor, a wind player who favored the Baroque period, loaned McGegan an 18th century flute. The teacher happened to have a tenant, Christopher Hogwood, who would become a noted champion of early music, but at the time was just founding a Baroque orchestra. McGegan was on board from the first recording, igniting a long-term passion for Baroque music.
McGegan was also having his experiences outside the conservatory. While doing graduate work at Oxford, he would finish his classes, then take the train to London, where he would play in theater pit orchestras and in cabarets. Those gigs offered very limited rehearsal time, and a relaxed atmosphere where the audience’s attention wasn’t concentrated solely on the music. Not coincidentally, this led to a looseness in the music that isn’t often found in the concert hall.
“It was an incredibly good training for playing Baroque music,” said McGegan, who has lived in the San Francisco Bay area since 1985, and in Berkeley since 1989. (He also has a flat in Scotland.) “Baroque is the jazz music of the 18th century. It includes lots of freedom, improvisation. The very best Baroque orchestras and the very best jazz orchestras should be very similar.”
For McGegan the improvising aspect is significant. It makes classical instrumentalists not mere interpreters of what has been written, but forces them into a creative role as well.
“Bach didn’t write down all the notes; you have to put some things in there,” he said. “At the same time, both jazz and Baroque have very clear structures. Which means you can make up the rest of it. Like a 12-bar blues – you always know where you are, so you can make things up. Not having everything written down – that’s very liberating. The people playing the tunes, the soloists, have much more freedom. Some of it – the bass rhythm – is pretty strict. But if you’re a singer or keyboardist or violin soloist, you’re expected to improvise over the bass. In the 18th century, people were trained to do it. They aren’t now. I’d love it if every conservatory had a compulsory improv course.”
McGegan’s desire to put some visceral fun in the concert-going experience and his affection for improvisation seem to go hand-in-hand. He finds a connection between a musician making up a melody on the spot, and a crowd getting engaged with the performance in a more active way. He brings up a concert five years ago, when Robert Levin, a pianist and composer, improvised his own cadenza in a Beethoven concerto.
“And the audience actually clapped at the end of the cadenza – with 50 bars left to play,” McGegan noted. “That’s illegal as far as concert etiquette goes, but it was absolutely right and absolutely thrilling.”
A similar experience came in a concert in Eugene, Ore., when Thomas Quasthoff, a highly regarded bass-baritone, came off the classical pedestal to jam with Bobby McFerrin. “And the audience went nuts. Because here you have Quasthoff letting his hair down – and knowing at the same time he could sing Mahler or Schubert, the most serious stuff,” McGegan said.
McGegan believes that injecting that sort of jollity into classical music is hardly a radical notion, or even a departure from early concert-going.
“Mozart loved it when people clapped in the middle of a movement,” he said. “I have no problem with people clapping between movements. If you’re playing Mahler Nine, it’s a different atmosphere than [Mozart’s] ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, or Haydn, which had genuine jokes in it.” McGegan mentions a Haydn passage in which two bassoons play some loud, rude notes: “It could only be associated with the back end of a cow. You can be sure the original audience laughed their asses off.”
The notion that classical music is strictly serious business wasn’t around at the birth of concert music. McGegan imagines a dinner party where the guests are all noted composers, and he believes there would be plenty of drinking, laughter and off-color behavior.
“Haydn would be delightful, charming. Mendelssohn – wonderful,” he said. “Mozart would probably tell naughty jokes and fart and throw bread rolls at the women. He wasn’t well-trained for the house. Poor Beethoven – he’d probably be tortured, because he couldn’t hear the conversation. Wagner would just talk about himself.”
A review of a recent concert McGegan did with the Philadelphia Orchestra referred to McGegan and Robert Levin as “the two naughty boys of early music.” But McGegan finds nothing inappropriate about his approach to music. When the music calls for an austere respect, he has no trouble moving into a more solemn mode. In any event, his credentials as a proper gentleman were solidified last month, when he was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
But McGegan sees his role not so much as standing erect next to the queen, but in getting the classical music world off its high and mighty throne.
“One of my jobs is to get a lot of the students to loosen up,” he said. “They come from conservatories where they’re told to be well-behaved. My job is to be slightly subversive. The composers weren’t well-behaved. They were playing all kinds of tricks.”