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February 6, 2012

Nicholas McGegan returns to BSO podium for spirited workout

The Baltimore Symphony welcomed Nicholas McGegan back to the podium last week.

His expertise in historically informed performances to music from the baroque and classical eras makes him a valued guest conductor with modern instrument orchestras. They can always use a little jolt from the authenticity crowd.

With McGegan, you also get an abundance of personality, which makes his appearances doubly welcome. On Saturday night at the Meyerhoff, he danced his way through an attractive assortment of familiar scores by Bach, Haydn and Mozart, and something new to the BSO's repertoire -- a suite from Rameau's opera "Nais."

(As a concert-goer remarked on Saturday, McGegan seemed to be at least a third of the way toward ...

the fabulously expressive podium choreography of Joseph Olefirowicz.)

The Rameau suite proved to be a highlight of the evening. For one thing, the music is exceedingly tuneful and colorful, a rich document of the sonic glory that defined the French baroque. McGegan brought plenty of rhythmic drive to to score, but abundant nuance as well, and he drew lively, attentive playing from the ensemble.

Without attempting imitation, the BSO strings nonetheless caught something of the light and lithe character of period instruments, while a good deal of flair also emanated from the brass, winds and percussion.

Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 opened the evening. In tutti passages, the sound struck me as rather mushy at times, but the performance nonetheless proved pleasant.

Qing Li, the violin soloist, offered some vivid phrasing, but the most shining work came from the oboists (Jane Marvine, Sandra Gerster, Fatma Daglar) and the horn players (Philip Munds, Gabrielle Finck).

After intermission, Andrew Balio, the orchestra's principal trumpet, stepped to the front of the stage to play the heck out of Haydn's E-flat major Concerto. It was a great opportunity to be reminded of Balio's technical polish and musicality. His phrasing had elegance, charm and wit in equal measure.

McGegan ensured smoothly flowing support for Balio from the orchestra, which also did polished, character-rich work in the program's concluding dose of E-flat major -- Mozart's Symphony No. 39. The conductor shaped that work with an engaging combination of propulsion and lyrical contour to cap this feel-good concert.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:13 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


Indeed, this was a feel good concert. More of these please.

And while "baroque specialists" are indeed generally welcome to lead major orchestras, it will be double welcome for music directors and great conductors of the day to venture to baroque repertoire. There are some timid steps, for example Yannick Nézet-Séguin has programmed Matthaeus-Passion next season in Philly, and even Lorin Maazel has programmed the Brandenburgs during his NY Phil tenure. But then the younger Maazel has recorded the B Minor Mass and Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, so just the Brandenburg with the NY Phil is unfortunately a step back.

And I will not forget that the best performance of a Brandenburg that I have attended came from this very Baltimore Symphony under, surprise, yes, Temirkanov. It actually was the first BSO concert that I have attended, and it made me regret that Temirkanov did not tackle one of Bach's large scale works.

And the same Temirkanov concert also included Mozart's 39 Symphony. Good as McGegan was - and I am perhaps comparing apples with oranges since their approaches was diametrically opposite - the great performance was still Temirkanov's. Shamlessly big-band approach, marvelously phrased, and exhilarating.

One more comment about the present concert. One thing that (pleasantly) surprised me was the relatively large number of strings in Rameau, which runs contrary to the minimalist approach that is 'a la mode.' Certainly William Christie generally uses a smaller number. But I do prefer the larger number of strings.

As I said, more of this, please!

This was my second concert under Nicholas McGegan's baton, and I enjoyed it even more than the last. His style is engaging and charming. I just ENJOY his concerts. And the guy is always smiling. He smiles at the orchestra and they smile back at him. They all make lovely music and everyone is happy. Gotta like that.

"Feel good" sounds like a put down. Is a concert supposed to make you "feel bad"? Not sure I get the observation.

I though all the soloists did a nice job too. The trumpet was lovely in the Haydn piece.

Not a put-down at all. Some programs are more about drama and deep thoughts, maybe a bit of angst; others avoid stress and concentrate on beauty of form and content. TS

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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