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Are We Having Fun Yet?

Nicholas McGegan is a leading exponent of music on original instruments. But what really matters to him is having a good old time.

August 11, 1996|Stuart Cohn | Stuart Cohn is an occasional contributor to Calendar

'If it's not fun, it's not worth doing."

The phrase is repeated over and over in an almost fugal set of variations when Nicholas McGegan is interviewed. The wry, witty conductor, music director of San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque--perhaps America's leading period instrument ensemble--has a focused, almost single-minded approach to his work.

While he often adheres to the tenets of historical accuracy and authentic performance practices that mark the early music movement, he is not a slave to them. In fact, he spends a lot of time conducting bands that play steel-string violins with nary a harpsichord or wooden flute to be seen onstage.

This week, he makes his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl leading two programs. The first, on Tuesday night, includes Schubert's Symphony No. 5 and features fortepianist Robert Levin in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466. The second features a Levin-reconstructed Requiem, K. 626, by Mozart and Bach's Magnificat, BMV243.

So what will the McGegan-led Philharmonic sound like at the Bowl?

"Hopefully," says the 46-year-old Englishman by phone from his home in Berkeley, "they'll sound as good as they always sound. I'm not going to preach to them about early music or anything silly like that. The wrong attitude to take is that I'm the only person with the right answers. That's not the way to go. And besides, I'm much too short!"

He adds that he hopes to bring out a chamber orchestra quality in the Philharmonic and, at least on the Mozart concerto, "make all the woodwind players feel like soloists because there'll be a lot of good tunes to play."

In general, the puckish McGegan doesn't do anything different with a modern orchestra than he would with one playing on period instruments. "It's all music. There's nothing worse than coming in and saying, 'No vibrato for the next three days.' To make stylistic pronouncements like that is a terrific arrogance and gets you nowhere. I like to work with orchestras. If I'm having a good time, and the orchestra is having a good time, hopefully the audience will, too."

McGegan's democratic approach to conducting is in part a legacy of the period of early music foment in which he got his start. The period-instrument baroque movement in England in the late 1960s and early 1970s was characterized by collaborative relationships between players and conductors. Groups such as the Academy of Ancient Music, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Hanover Band were formed in an atmosphere that rejected the hierarchy of superstar maestros, bandleaders who ruled with an iron baton and didn't allow the player to make his or her own interpretive decisions.

Like many early music performers of his generation, McGegan, a flutist and harpsichord player, got into it sideways. Earning a music degree at Cambridge required hacking through a course in acoustics, studying the physics behind sounds made by instruments and their reverberations in concert halls. The class often met at the professor Nicholas Shackleton's house, which had a large collection of 18th century wind instruments--and a tenant named Christopher Hogwood.

One day, McGegan, who'd been studying 20th century music, borrowed an 18th century wooden flute and was on his way, eventually playing with all the major groups in England, most extensively with Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music.

"He was always very friendly," Hogwood recalls. "Fun to get on with, always reading, quick with literary quotes." McGegan played flute on the landmark period-instrument recordings of Mozart symphonies that made Hogwood a star and made some serious money for English Decca Records. He also served as harpsichordist and vocal coach when the Academy performed a Handel oratorio.

But, Hogwood says, McGegan never expressed any desire to conduct back then. McGegan says he's actually been conducting since he was about 18.

"I did a lot of opera on the quiet while I was still at Cambridge, and later I was playing so much in that gray area of early music where you play harpsichord and conduct at the same time."

McGegan specialized in conducting 18th century French opera around London, what he calls the "souffle music"of Philidor and Rameau, before

accepting an academic post at Washington University in St. Louis. He resumed his podium career in the U.S. with a 1983 performance of Handel's oratorio "Semele" at the Washington Opera in D.C. and followed that up the next year with Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress."

He joined Philharmonia Baroque as music director in 1985, when the then 4-year-old group was a players' collective looking to organize into a proper orchestra. "This was during its Birkenstock period," McGegan recalls. "We've gone from 12 concerts a year to 50, so I guess it's been a great success."

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