Nicholas McGegan plans to have fun with The Cleveland Orchestra

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On Saturday, July 17, British-born conductor Nicholas McGegan will take the Cleveland Orchestra back to the 18th century when he conducts the ensemble in Handel’s ‘Concerto Grosso No. 1’ and the Suite from ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’, and collaborates with violinist Peter Otto in Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’.

Dubbed ‘The Energizer Bunny’ by the Plain Dealer, McGegan was indeed full of energy, even at 9:30 in the morning, when we reached him by phone in Aspen. He had just conducted the Mendelsssohn violin concerto with Joshua Bell the night before and was already brimming with enthusiasm about next Saturday’s performance at Blossom.

How did he arrive at the Vivaldi & Handel playlist? “First, I think it’s a fun program. With summer seasons, orchestras are looking for popular music, and that is not a problem as long as it is good, and the ‘Four Seasons’ is both popular and good. It’s also a good opportunity to give a member of the orchestra like Peter a chance to play a concerto. It’s going to be great to work with him — he is such a fine violinist. I admire him as a player and like him a lot. Also the ‘Royal Fireworks’ is one of the few Baroque pieces that was written for large forces. In fact, Handel intended for it to be performed outdoors.”

McGegan started his career not as a conductor, but as a flutist. Studying at Cambridge University in the 70’s, he happened to meet a collector who showed him an 18th century instrument. McGegan admits that it took a bit of doing, but eventually he learned to play the instrument, at the same time his housemate, Christopher Hogwood, was organizing his period instrument orchestra, The Academy of Ancient Music. Hogwood invited him to join the group, and McGegan suddenly found himself in demand in more than one capacity. “[John Elliott] Gardiner and [Roger] Norrington also had orchestras, so when I wasn’t playing the flute, I would sometimes fill in on harpsichord”.

Later, while teaching at Cambridge, McGegan was invited to become Artist-in-Residence at Washington University in St. Louis, a position he held from 1979 to 1985. “I remember I arrived in St. Louis on my birthday. It was during that period that I began to conduct”. One thing led to another and it is the San Francisco based Philharmonia Baroque, an orchestra he has led since 1985, and which celebrates its 30th birthday this season, that has helped make the name Nicholas McGegan synonymous with historical performance practice.

McGegan knows that subject thoroughly, but has developed a healthy sense of perspective. “There was a time in the early 1980’s when people who were advocating historical performance practice seemed to be in some sort of search for the Holy Grail, but on the other hand, I don’t have respect for the people who have totally dismissed the movement either. But now young people coming out of conservatories understand and can play both early and modern styles.”

He also credits the movement for the number of wonderful early music recordings that are being played on classical music radio stations around the world. “Yes, things have changed quite a bit since the early 1980’s”.

The Cleveland Orchestra can look forward to a enjoyable experience with McGegan, who says that when he is in front of an orchestra, “I’m not working with them, I’m having fun with them.” When asked to expand on this, he goes on to say, “I don’t try to tell them, this is the way it goes. We are talking
about the arts and therefore two plus two does not always equal four. I don’t have a formula that I put into the microwave. For example, this ‘Four Seasons’ with Peter will be different from the performance I did previously with Bill [Preucil]. I enjoy what I do and I don’t like the audience to feel like they are going to a grim church service when they go to a concert. It’s all happy stuff.”

This article was originally published on ClevelandClassical.com on July 12, 2010.