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A little traveling music

Nicholas McGegan will be the Philharmonic's witty 'Grand Tour' guide at Hollywood Bowl.

August 05, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

The idea of the grand tour goes back to the 17th century, when wealthy Europeans toured the Continent's cultural capitals to soak up art, manners and fashion.

These days, though, as even the euro seems to buy less all the time, many people are thinking twice about broadening their horizons with European travel. But well heeled or not, classical music aficionados have the opportunity to take a "Grand Tour" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this month at the Hollywood Bowl. Concerts there will focus on London on Tuesday, Venice on Thursday, Paris on Aug. 14 and Vienna on Aug. 16. They'll all be led by early music specialist Nicholas McGegan, music director of San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and a familiar Southland visitor.

"Now that travel has become such a hassle, this is a way of doing it without actually having to deal with airport security," says a typically impish McGegan. "The one person who is a thread through the whole thing is Mozart, who managed to be in all these places. There is a work of his on every single program. It really is the grand tour, but you might as well say 'Traveling With Mozart.' The main thing is, it's all about having fun. It's not like a summer course at university or anything like that. This is all with a very light touch."

The idea for the series came from three members of the Philharmonic's management: President Deborah Borda, Vice President of Artistic Planning Chad Smith and Artistic Administrator John Mangum.

"We all had dinner together, and things were gently cooked up," says McGegan. "I can happily say that it's their idea, and it's absolutely great fun for me. Apart from London, these are all very good food cities. I mean now London is great. I'm not so sure it was so good then. I shall certainly be looking for theme restaurants during this."

Apart from any culinary connections, some thematic connections will be obvious during the series, such as Mozart's "Paris" Symphony on Aug. 14 or Mozart's First Symphony, composed in London when he was 8, on Tuesday. Works by Handel and Thomas Arne will fill out the Tuesday program.

The Handel works will be "all fairly pop stuff that could be on that sort of 'Handel Makes Babies Smarter' CD," says McGegan. "The bit that is going to be rather delicious is doing Arne's 'Rule Britannia' at the end. To have 10,000 Americans at the Hollywood Bowl all singing 'Rule Britannia,' I think that will be very cheerful. I shall certainly wear my British flag or British cuff links or something. I don't really qualify for any of the other cities, but that one I do."

McGegan, 57, was born in Sawbridgeworth, England, which also has been home to soccer star David Beckham. He went to Nottingham High School, the same one D.H. Lawrence and conductor Christopher Hogwood attended. "The school is coming up on its 500th anniversary in 2013," he says. "I'm sure they'll touch me for money."

After secondary school, McGegan continued his studies at Cambridge and Oxford universities, and while at Cambridge, he says, "narrowly avoided conducting Prince Charles. He was in the Cambridge Second Orchestra the year before I conducted it. So lucky for him, I would say."

Having aimed for a career as a musicologist, McGegan changed direction after acoustics professor Nicholas Shackleton introduced him to the Baroque flute and also to the professor's young lodger, future conductor Hogwood.

"I got to know Chris and we played chamber music together, and I joined his orchestra for the very first recording he'd ever made, which were some symphonies by Thomas Arne," he says. "That's what drew me to Baroque music."

In the '70s, McGegan also performed in ensembles led by Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner and taught at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. He came to the U.S. in 1979 when another early-musiker, Trevor Pinnock, recommended him for a position at Washington University in St. Louis. He stayed there until 1985, when he became music director of the Philharmonia Baroque.

As much as he loves the American West, McGegan retains his British citizenship and maintains residences in Berkeley and Glasgow, Scotland.

"I have a green card, so I'm legal," he says. "The big thing is, I don't want to lose all my European work permits because it's a devil to get them back. The only two things I can't do are carry a gun and vote for the president, and I have no particular intention of doing either."

'My meat and drink'

McGegan has a healthy discography with the Philharmonia Baroque (see accompanying list), including CDs of music by Handel, Mozart and Vivaldi. Hence, although the Venice program on Thursday will include Vivaldi concertos that McGegan hasn't conducted before, "I've done about 50 other ones, so it's not such a stretch, I hope.

"That's the period I live and work in. Well, I don't quite live in the 18th century, but this is stuff that is my meat and drink."

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