Nicholas McGegan

Marianne Lipanovich on March 16, 2009
Catching up with Nicholas McGegan isn’t easy. He may be based in Berkeley, but as a conductor and expert in Baroque and early music, he’s in demand across the country and in Europe, with forays into Asia. But when he is at home, one of his roles is as music director laureate of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Their upcoming performances of Handel’s Athalia will allow us to hear one of the composer’s lesser-known oratorios. We caught up with him at Yale, where he answered some questions about the upcoming concerts and his approach to music in general.

You will be performing Athalia, who is described as Handel’s Wicked Queen and as “the bad girl of the Bible.” How would you describe this piece?

It’s a sacred drama, with the emphasis on drama. Biblical doesn’t interest me, drama does. There is a conflicted baddie in Athalia. She has a bit of a conscience. It’s not merely a chess game. There are personalities, and feelings, and doubt.

Handel is one of the supreme operatic composers of human passions. Not all of these are good passions, either. He knows how to get an audience tremendously involved in the characters. The characters themselves feel overwhelmed by situations. The characters are doing bad things, but they may not be all bad themselves. It’s about the people. It’s gripping in any form. So it’s not about just early music, but present emotions.

What will you get from the music?

The recitatives move the story forward. Then you’ll get characters explaining what they’re feeling and doing — the arias. Unlike many other performances, such as plays, the characters will tell the audience their unspoken thoughts and emotions, usually by a simile. They rarely say anything directly in arias.

Why is this a good choice for someone who is new to classical performances?

First of all, it’s in English, so you don’t have to bury your nose in a program book. There are no subtitles. The language is high-falutin at times, but it’s understandable.

People in the drama wear their skin inside out. They’re very touchy-feely. I call it real life without the boring parts, like having their morning coffee. You move from highlight to highlight, so it’s very exciting. You’re getting just the good bits.

Added to this, it’s not just the people. There are situations which crave resolution. Yes, it’s formulaic, but so is the TV crime drama CSI. You don’t see a CSI show end without knowing who did it and how. CSI is just as formulaic as opera, and both are entertaining. In fact, giving it structure helps. You know it will be resolved, but you want to find out how.

Added to this is the chorus, which is found more in oratorios than operas. In England, opera choruses were rare. You could save money by not having to hire them, having to costume them, having them move about the stage without running into other people. In oratorios, they’re just there, but they make a difference. Like a Greek chorus, they react to events. And since it’s sacred, they can stop for a prayer. They can join in the mass jollity if things turn out well. They add an element of pageant and aggrandizement. And you expect queens and kings to have people around: the court to agree with them and the priests to pray, if it’s sacred drama.

Finally, oratorios provide a moral lesson, that the good will end happily. Just as with every art work of the period, it’s giving you a moral lesson, some of which is not comfortable to contemplate.

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is renowned. Tell us about it.

It’s the biggest and busiest of the period performance bands. It was started in 1981 by Laurette Goldberg, who was the mother of early music in the Bay Area. She was a very good mother, very nurturing, but once it was on its own, she took a step back. It needed structure, and she realized that her role needed to change. By 1985, they wanted a music director and asked me to come. She went on to other projects on the educational side of things while still being very supportive.

When I became involved, the group was doing 10 or 12 concerts a year. Now it’s 40 to 50 a year, not all in the Bay Area. We do a series of seven sets of concerts, that are four days to six or seven days. On top of that we do guest appearances — we just did two in Minnesota, and we'll be working with Mark Morris and playing in New York and at Cornell. This year is good financially, but we’re still on the subscriptions and donations for this season. We’ll see how things happen in the future, with the economic downturn. But I think we’ll be fine. We don’t have the same overhead as larger groups, and like a small boat versus an ocean liner, the small boat is more flexible and the liner takes at least 20 minutes to stop.

I am amazed and thrilled that we’re doing lots of concerts and almost all have been sold out. We played a 2,000-seat “hole” in the snow and they had to open the upper tier. In dark days, people look for entertainment. They say, “That looks like a nice concert let’s go,” or “This one piques my interest.” One function of the arts is to entertain, delight, and give people a good time.

How would you describe the “historical movement” in music?

Let me use a theater analogy. There are two ways to do Hamlet. One is in doublets and hose, with swords and a set that looks vaguely like a castle. The other is in leotards with bungee jumping. Both are valid.

In the historical movement, we use period instruments. We’re using the instruments of Handel’s day; wood not metal, lower pitch, and different bows in the violins. But we’re not like people in Civil War costumes, re-creating the original pieces. Instead, we’re putting on a modern performance for modern people, using resources that Handel would have used, playing in the same size “holes” as Handel would have, which are more intimate.

I fervently believe that one reason to do this is to get the emotions across more strongly. People shouldn’t be bored. People shouldn’t come out saying, “That was really correct.” That doesn’t matter. If they were bored, we failed. This should be a roller coaster ride of emotions.

This period movement is unnecessarily tied to authenticity, which is a complete red herring. There is no such thing, and it presupposes a gold standard you should be trying to achieve. We don’t know what the composer wanted, but we can say that we’re aiming to do things that aren’t against the spirit of what the composer wants.

An example is vibrato. People say that it wasn’t part of early music, but we don’t know that. It wasn’t as well liked, but sometimes it’s there naturally and sometimes it happens when people sing too loudly.

I do a lot of work and play in modern symphony orchestras. They have a huge repertoire, and so they tend to adopt a fairly flexible style or styles to accommodate this. We’re more specialists and can be more stylistic.

In your work with modern orchestras, how do you go about establishing yourself with a group so you can work well together in a limited amount of time?

Even if it’s my first time with an orchestra, conducting, contrary to some beliefs, is not a tyranny, just as a stage director isn’t a dictator. Musicians have their own personalities, and I encourage them to play the way they want, not impose my ways on them. I need to take into account the people who are there.

I always show up with my own music. Rehearsal time is at a premium, and it’s expensive, so we need to use the time to sort out what’s going to happen with the music, not in discussion and preparations. We can get down to the work of creating balance, following a soloist, and so on, not worrying about the music, just as the stage director doesn’t want to waste time with people worrying about the words. The more you prepare in advance, the better, and orchestras are very disciplined.

We work out the program two years in advance, and two months prior to the performance I send out all the music. The UPS shipping store loves me. It’s a big operation, but if you’re organized the music making is all the more fun.

You usually work in the United States and Europe, but you’ve done a couple of trips to Asia.

I had a great time teaching in Japan, I loved it. But I was teaching an international student body. I also conducted an orchestra in Malaysia, but people were from 22 countries, rather than just Malaysian musicians.

I tend to avoid unfamiliar music and languages. I use words a lot, and have a fairly wide vocabulary, so I prefer to rehearse in languages I speak: English, French, and German. I have used translators, but it’s slower, and the words may not be as precise.

I also use humor a lot, and that’s harder to translate.

When I am with a German orchestra, it’s a joke-free zone, then afterwards we have beer and joke around. English orchestras are quite casual and funny. American orchestras are becoming much less formal.

You have a reputation for staging early operas that many people consider unstageable. What draws you to them?

I love doing them. Especially in places like the Drottningham Palace Theater in Sweden. Early operas are designed to be spectacular, and in the old opera house, you can use things like six fountains rising up from the floor or a dragon flying across. There are all the old winches and mechanics. You can’t do that with a concrete stage.

For anyone interested in exploring classical performances, how should they get started?

Go to a concert first rather than buy a CD. Collective listening is exciting, like a movie theater versus television.

Bring a friend and make it an experience. At Disney Hall, they told me the average age of attendance had gone down. It is considered an exciting place to bring a date. It’s a real evening out, and music is just part of that.

Start by going to a song recital, or something less formal, but still make it part of an entire evening. Then, if you get a CD of the piece, it will let you remember the whole experience fondly.

Go in hope, but know that you won’t like everything. For some people, the Kronos Quartet might be more to their taste than Renée Fleming. There are nonmusical reasons you may not like something, and that’s valid.

Find something that you hope you can enjoy. If you are a churchgoer, perhaps a concert of church music with words you’re familiar with will be ideal; if you’re a militant atheist, Gregorian chants might be too much.