Nicholas McGegan reflects on return to Aspen
After missing 2020 due to the pandemic and 2019 due to a hip replacement, conductor’s popular ‘Baroque Evening’ returned this week
Conductor Nicholas McGegan has been a fixture at the Aspen Music Festival across more than two decades while earning an international profile as one of the great champions and interpreters of early and Baroque music and as an ambassador for the classical music world.
Around Aspen he’s known as the guy who makes a harpsichord feel like a rock star’s ax. After missing the pandemic-canceled 2020 season, the showman, of course, missed his audiences.
“It’s lovely to finish a piece and hear applause, even if it’s just a bit,” he said last week on the back patio at the Benedict Music Tent. “Audiences are all very enthusiastic to come back.”
McGegan’s on-stage effervescence, his quick wit and his eye for juicy historical nuggets has made his annual “Baroque Evening,” improbably, among the most popular perennial events at the festival. McGegan also conducted the Aspen Chamber Symphony’s performance last week. Aspen is among several places around the world that claim him as their own — his native England, his adopted home in San Francisco, where he led the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for 30-plus years and Dallas, where he performed through the pandemic last winter are among the others.
McGegan’s return to Aspen this year was freighted with meaning, he noted, not only because he missed his 2020 summer here due to the pandemic cancellation and because he had to cancel his 2019 “Baroque Evening” due to a hip replacement surgery. His concert this week fulfilled the planned program of that concert two years ago, performing four of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.
Returning with the new hip this summer had some perks for the 71-year-old.
“It’s nice walking properly again in the mountains,” McGegan said. “And slowly.”
McGegan’s winter series with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was curtailed as well, as he tested positive for COVID-19 in January and quarantined in the city.
“The worst bit was staying in a hotel in Dallas for 10 days where the windows didn’t open,” he said. “It was very much like being in the zoo. A large paper bag would be left outside the room twice a day that I felt like a tiger just being given a couple of bones for the night.”
Like many locals and others with longtime ties to Aspen — McGegan notes proudly that his time at the festival extends to the days of the old music tent — he’s conflicted about the changes the pandemic brought to the town.
“It feels a little sad walking around doesn’t it?” he said. “Like, well, there used to be a great restaurant here that’s closed or this one’s gone up in the world and has these insane prices, or whatever. So it’s an adventure.”
He’s grateful to be back on stage and making music again with his friends.
“Just being back and working three hours every morning is bliss,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s great to be back and see the musicians I haven’t seen in a long time.”
Whatever the complications of the pandemic, McGegan, as ever, exudes his signature enthusiasm for the music and the work.
At a dress rehearsal with the symphony last week, he briefly sketched the biography of Bologne — whose “L’amant anonyme” led the concert — and how the composer was one of the great swordsman and duelists of his day in France.
“As a conductor, I would not tell him if he were out of tune,” McGegan quipped.
And introducing Haydn’s “The Bear” symphony, he was giddy to conduct it for the first time in actual bear country: “This is the only place I’ve performed with real bears where they mix with the general public and might break into your car.”
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Yefim Bronfman coaxed an ear-caressing range of tone from the Steinway grand piano on the stage of the Benedict Music Tent on Tuesday evening.