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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Rameau, J.S Bach, J.C Bach, Handel, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan (conductor), Philadelphia, October 2004 (BJ)



As apt prelude to what seems to be a satisfactory conclusion of the contract negotiations, the Philadelphia Orchestra ended October with one of the jolliest programs it has presented in a long time. The repertoire was all drawn from the 18th century: excerpts from Rameau’s Naďs suite, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, his son Johann Christian Bach’s Sinfonia concertante in C major for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and orchestra, and Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. Following the practice it has adopted in recent seasons, the orchestra brought in a leading practitioner in the baroque field, the British-born Nicholas McGegan, to conduct, and the results were exhilarating: McGegan, on the podium (and at the harpsichord in the J.S. Bach work) had a ball, the orchestra obviously had a ball – even insisting on giving him a solo call at the end of the evening – and as a consequence the audience had a ball too, responding with a vociferous standing ovation of the kind not often associated with anything short of the standard spectacular orchestral warhorses.



From his convivial spoken introduction onwards, McGegan had everybody in the palm of his hand, though I did wonder how many of the audience members were old enough to relish his description of Naďs as “the Esther Williams of her day”; his comment on the inveterate indifference of British monarchs to culture had a more contemporary ring. Naďs got the concert proper off to a rousing start, ranging effectively from grandiosity and eloquence to moments of sheer fun, accentuated by some appropriate contributions from such frivolous instruments as tambourines (actually the title of the concluding movement). As it proved to do throughout the proceedings, McGegan’s conducting emphasized incisive tone-colors –sometimes at the expense of accurate pitch – and rhythmic zest. The latter indeed might at certain points, especially in the faster sections of the Fireworks Music, have been thought a touch too insistent, for such passages tended towards breathlessness in their sheer headlong flight; but too much vitality is preferable to too little, and I think only the most uncompromising of purists could have had much to complain about.



Like the Rameau and Handel works, the two quick movements of the Third Brandenburg Concerto were dashingly projected. This light-footed account, with single players on each part, had me thinking back with amusement to the kind of reading the work used to get from such conductors as Henry Wood, with a massive line of double-basses underpinning the sound of his huge string orchestra. Here McGegan’s central keyboard riff provided welcome contrast to the prevailing vim and vigor, and in Christian Bach’s tuneful and agreeably unpretentious concertante symphony associate principal flute David Cramer and principal oboe Richard Woodhams in particular covered themselves with glory.



To some it may seem inappropriate, in these days of period-instrument performance, for a symphony orchestra to program music from the pre-symphonic era. But as McGegan and some of his eminent colleagues demonstrate, it is perfectly possible to achieve what are known as “historically informed” performances on modern instruments, and the benefit, in terms not just of pleasure for the audience but also of enhanced playing culture for the musicians, is immeasurable.



Bernard Jacobson

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