Recently in town· ...NICHOLASMcGEGANinterviewed by Pamela Marg/esWhen I met ·with conductor Nicholas McGeganbackstage at Roy Thomson Hall in December,everyone we passed in the hallways greetedhim warmly, "Hi, Nie!".· 'When I first came to North America,' hetold me, 'I was "the young British conductorNicholas McGegan", then the "young" disappeared,then the "British" disappeared, then the"Nicholas" disappeared." He laughs.McGegan was in town guest-conducting theToronto Symphony in Mozart's arrangement ofHandel's Messiah. 'I just don't get the wholemaestro thing. I feel that the old Europeanstyleconductor who loses his temper at thedrop of his hat and says, "It's my way or thehighway" - or the autobahn - is definitelygoing out of fashion. It's a team effort. I actuallyfeel incredibly lucky.''There is a whole new way of looking at'- conductorships these days. The conductor hasto be a part of the community. To have a conductorwho flies in and out again, doesn't talkto donors, doesn't go to other programs givenby that symphony, and doesn't do a children'sconcert, is not the way of the future.''I know a conductor who after more then ten·years still calls his first clarinet "Clarinet".He's so far up in the clouds he doesn't evenknow his musicians' names. But they are, after· all, the people who make the noise. It isn't mysound. I just wave my arms around. Theyhave as much responsibility, if not more, forthe performance as I do. It's a collaborativeeffort. I think that unless conductors are preparedto be part of the team then they are doingeveryone a disservice.''In the rehearsal I can work on things Imight like, but the performance is a differentmatteraltogether. There is a myth that a conductorgets what-he wants. This is not alwaysthe case - and shouldn't be, I think.''In Germany rehearsals tend to be joke-freezones, and I do find that very tedious. In anyNorth American, British or Australian orchestra,rehearsals can be tremendous fun, and it'slovely to have a bit of give and take, and share .some jokes. It makes for a.happy work atmosphere,and I like that:'During the past six years McGegan hasconducted the TSO in eight programs, whichincluded Bach's St. Mathew Passion as well asPeter Maxwell Davies' Mavis in Las Vegasand a children's concert. "The TSO is fabulous,and it's an extremely amenable bunch ofpeople.' McGegan first came to the UnitedStates from England as a baroque specialist.For over twenty years he has lead San Francisco'sPhilharmonia Baroque, which is the topperiod instrument orchestra in the UnitedStates, the American counterpart to Toronto'sTafelmusik. But he also has had a long relationshipwith a modern-instrument orchestra,12St. Paul Chamber Orchestr~,where he is aco-artistic director.He lives in Berkeley andGlasgow, but travels allover the world guestconducting. In fact,although he is stil.lknown as a baroquespecialist, most of histime is now spent conductingorchestras playingmodern instruments.In just a short visitMcGegan manages togive a rnoderri orchestralike the Toronto Symphonysome of thestylishness, transparencyand naturalness of aperiod instrument group.His methods, it turns. out, involve some very ,clever preparations, way before rehearsals evenstart.'Rehearsals should be about making music,not preparing it, in the sense of doing the nutsand bolts. So I nearly always use my ownmusic. These are special parts for modemorchestras that I have prepared, so that when Iam doing a piece by a composer like Rameau,who is not everyday repertoire fpr a modemorchestra, r don't need to discuss bowings,whether trills should be from the upper note, orwhether something is notes inegales. It'salready marked in the music.''For any work I perform, I have three setsof parts, an original instrument set and 2 modernsets, because sometimes I'm doing thesame work with 2 different orchestras oneweek after the next. I send the music 2 or 3months in advance. The parts are all bowed,and all the prep work is done. I have a hugelibrary of music. And if it is a piece I've recorded,I send everyone my recording, so thereare no surprises.'.'With the bread and butter repertoire, likeBrahms symphonies, each orchestra has itsown music, and it~ own way of doing it. ButI'm usually doing the Haydn symphonies orMozart piano concertos which are not the onesthey usually do. Or if they are, then I want tosay something different about the piece.''With a period orchestra you don't have todo that much preparation. They know. Thosemusicians pride themselves on being able toornament and read continua. Generally speakingwith them, the more you put it in, the lessfree, like jazz, it becomes. Even so, I try withPhilharmonia to have all the music out to themusicians a month in advance.''The older I get, the easier it is for me to bea conductor, ·because I am more experiencedand skilled. I find you get absolutely nothingby preaching, 'I know all the answers aboutthis style, and you know nothing.' It's nottrue, and it's arrogant. Any performance is atwo-way street. I bring things to it, the per~formers bring things to it. If there's a big oboesolo, for instance, the oboist's opinions andpersonality bring something I may have neverWWW. THEWHOLENOTE.COMdreamt of. I can do the same work with anoth- ·er orchestra the following week, and the oboistwill sound completely different.''Bart6k was so persnickety about his ownmusic that he wrote out pedal marks, fingerings,and even how long every line should last.But you can hear on recordings of Bart6k ·playing hjs own music how the tempos, andsometimes even the notes, are different fromday to day. There· is a composer writing downeverything, and yet even he doesn't play in afixed way.''This Toronto performance is now my thirdtime doing the Mozart Messiah this year, andeach time it has been different - period or modeminstruments, a chorus of 25 or, as here, achorus of 125, in English or German. Every. time the soloists and the halls have been differel).t.So there are all those variables. There isnever a sense, I hope, that I am microwaving aMessiah, because its freshly cooked everynight!''What is very healthy I think is that thesymphony orchestras are not depriving themselvesof early repertoire. I have done Bach'sB Minor Mass with a lot of modem orchestras.Critics will say, "Oh, but that should be thepreserve of period instruments." To which Isay "Rubbish."''If there isn't a period orchestra in that citythen it doesn't get played - and y0u certainlyshould be able to hear the B Minor Mass asoften as possible. Besides, there is absolutelyno reason why a modern orchestra shouldn'tplay it wonderfully.''I am amazed by the number of modernorchestras, particularly in Europe, like theScottish Chamber Orchestra, which now usenatural trumpets, baroque horns, and baroquetimpani when playing 18th century music - andthat is very much a good thing. I have actuallyhad to ask the City of Birmingham Orchestra to. use a little more vibrato in Beethoven, becauseSimon Rattle had told them they couldn't use any.'McGegan has performed over twenty-fourHandel operas, and numerous oratorios. Manyof those hadn't been heard since Handel's day.While some of the opera productio,ns have beenFEBRUARY 1 - M ARCH 7 2007
traditional, others have been modern. 'I haveno problem with a good mociern production,just like a good modern Shakespeare production.Handel himself put Julius Caesar in the18th century dress of his time. I admire PeterSellers· tremendously. Mark Morris is fantastic -the Platee we did was incredibly funny. Theyboth have a tremendous understanding of thecomposer's original aesthetic, which they are ableto transpose without twisting it.'But I think that there is a difference betweena modern production and a modernconcept production - what I would call eurotrash.These concept productions are often likethe ugly sisters' shoes in Cinderella. The shoesimply doesn't fit so you cram the opera intoit, and if the shoe breaks, tough.''I've been involved in a couple of thoseproductions and I really hate them, mostlybecause these stage directors don't know anythingabout music. I had a terrible experiencewith one of those types. I would say, "I'msorry, butthis Italian word doesn't mean that."And he would say, "But it doe~ now."''I do very little opera these days because Idon't have time - just the Handel operas everysummer at the Handel Festival I direct in Gottingen,Germany. In the old days I didn'twork as hard, so I had the time to do opera.In the five or six weeks of rehearsal that ittakes I could be doing five or six weeks ofconcerts.'He does occasionally do nineteenth centuryopera. 'I did Hansel and Gretel at San FranciscoOpera, which I loved. The RichardJones production was absolutely terrific. Theopera company actually advised. children not tocome because they would find it too frightening,but of course children thought it was justfabulous - they love watching kids going intoovens and things. It was the parents who wereprissy about it.'. 'I'm not frightfully good at what! call the.tubercular operas, the Mimi ones. It's not thatI don't like them. What I do have Yery littlerapport with i~ bet canto opera. I love Bellini'scomic operas. Don Pasquale is absolutelywonderful. Unfortunately the music is almostexactly the same as in the serious operas, andtherefore I find it very hard to take it seriously- to have somebody dying to the sort of musicthat I associate with ice cream vans!''I conduct Brahms, and Wagner, who Iadore. I'd love to do Tristan - I think its wonderful.But I would try to find a theatre thatwas relatively small. Most opera houses arereally designed for Aida - with the elephants.In the same way, many concert halls are fartoo big. Roy Thompson Hall is as good as itgets for its size. I remember it-before theyredid it - let's not even go there. It's wonderfulnow, but there are still 2800 seats . 'The rapprochment between early and modernperformance practices that McGeganachieves extends to his casting. In the TorontoMessiah he used an early-music soprano,Meredith Hall, and a Wagnerian alto, JillGrove. 'Jill is a contralto rather than a mezzo.She has a big voice, ·which is great, and it'svery low. Mozart gilds the lily quite often withFEBRUARY 1 2007 - MARCH 7 2007·the orchestration. The mezzo, particularly in 0thou that tellest, has an awful lot of clarinetparts to cut through. Your average Handelianmezzo· can't sing that low, that loud.''But it's great to get an early music soprano,because modern divas - the Mimis ofthis world - haven't got the Handeliari coloratura.Its not part of their technique.'McGegan has worked regularly with someof today's finest singers. A remarkably largenumber are Canadian - besides Meredith Halland.John Tessier, who were in the TorontoMessiah, they include, just to name a few,Gerald Finley, Catherine Robbin, Isabel·Bayrakdarian, Gordon Gietz, Nancy Argenta,Dominique Labelle, Michael Colvin, and DanielTaylor.One of his deepest relationships was withthe Ainerican mezzo-soprano Lorraine HuntLieberson, who died just a few months ago,still in her singing prime. 'Lorraine was amazing.I worked with her mostly in the Bay area,where she had grown up, playing viola in highschool and professionally.''She was a remarkable musician. It wasn'tjust the voice - it was what was behind thevoice. I conducted my first Messiah with her in1986 at the St. Louis Symphony. She was asoprano in those days. I had played the continuopart eternally and done Chris Hogwood'srecording with the Academy of Ancient Music,but had never conducted it.''She could sing everybody off the stage. Thelast thing we did was the Berlioz Les Nuitsd'ete, with Philharmonia Baroque. It wastaped, so I hope we will be able to issue it,because it was a remarkable performance.''Part of it was everything she brought to themusic, the incredible passion behind it. Shewas always extremely well prepared. I don'tjust mean she knew the notes. She had workedon it internally - the emotions and what itmeant to her. She had in many ways a verydifficult life. Her sister had died of cancer, sothere was a_depth that came from rather bitterpersonal experience. On the other hand, shewas outrageously funny, and had a very fullthroatedlaugh. She would sing one of theseincredible arias, then right at the end she wouldget the giggles.'While still a student at Cambridge University,McGegan was already doing pioneeringwork in baroque music, playing flute and harpsichord.He edited and produced a long-forgottonopera, Fran~ois-Andre Philidor's TomJones. But it was performed on modern instruments,he points out. 'It was in 1972, andthere really weren't period instruments in thosedays. Chris Hogwood's orchestra didn't reallyget going until the next year. I've always donestuff with modern groups. When I started atCambridge I was playing Janacek and Varese.''I'm also interested in performance practicein the other direction. When I conduct Elgar, Ido the portamenti and all the slides that Elgarused when he was performing his own music.There is much to be derived from early recordings,like Elgar's own recordi'ngs of his music.You realize that performers in the 1950:s and·60's took it all much too slowly and heavily,and didn't slide as he did. There is a recordingof violinist Joseph Joachim playing unaccompaniedBach from about 1904, and it's very interestinghow he uses almost no vibrato. So someof these· modern practices are much more modernthan you think.''I think its terribly wrong to say that somethingshouldn't be performed in a certain way.Everything should always be performed. Itdoesn't mean that it has to be liked. I grew upplaying the flute part in Ebenezer Prout'sversion of Messiah. I'm sure it was absolutelyawful, by today's standards, but I'm very_ gladthat I got to play it. l think that depriving anaudience of the .opportunity of hearing somethinglive, even if it is not a very correct performance,is a bad thing:. All performanceshave some merit, especially if there is passionand commitment. · ·'You need to have the maximum flexibility. Ifind it a shame when the early music policecome in and say, "Oh no, that work is forperiod instruments, so it can only be done thisway." You can have a boring early instrumentperformance just as much as you can have aboring modern instrument performance. To me,music is about emotional communication.'DISCOGRAPHY.From McGegan's more than 100 recordings, I have selected some favourites that are most likely to be available:-Bach: Anna Magdalena Notebook with Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano, David Bowles, cello and Nicholas McGegan, harpsichordand clavichord. Harmonia Mundi USA '-Corelli: Concerto Grossi Op. 6vols. 1-6 and 7-12; Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan, conductor. Harmonia Mundi USA-Handel: Ariodante with Hunt Lieberson, Safer, Muller; Freiberger Barockorchester, Nicholas McGegan, conductor. HarmoniaMuhdi-Handel: Arias with Hunt (Lieberson), soprano and meuo·soprano; Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan, conductor. HarmoniaMundi-Handel: Messiah with Hunt (Lieberson), Spence, Minter; Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas Mr.Gegan, conductor. Harmon'ia Mundi-Handel: La Resurrezione with Saffer, Nelson, Thomas; Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan, conductor. Harmonia Mundi-Scarlatti: Cecilian Vespers with Labelle, Ryden, Slattery; Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan, conductor. AvieThese are less easy to obtain, but worth the effort:-Handel: Arias for Durastanti with Hunt (Lieberson) and Minter; Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan, conductor. HarmoniaMundi ··Handel: Giustino with Chance, Riischmann, Lane, Minter, Padmore; Freiburger Barockorchester, Nicholas McGegan, conductor.Harmonia Mundi-Handel: Susanna with Hunt Lieberson, Thomas, Minter; Philharmcinia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan, conductor. Harmonia Mundi-Scarlatti Cantatas, Vol. II with David Daniels, countertenor; Arcadian Academy, Nicholas McGegan, conductor. ConiferWWW, THEWHOLENOTE.COM 13
to disappoint me, which would speed
performer, sounding as wonderful
screechy Edith Bunker - at least on
During the 1960s my friend Paul Rob
Bach - Cantatas for very musically.
416.593.4828 I WWW. tso.ca I Concer