At one time, early music conductors and performers never ventured outside of their areas of specialization. The American choral conductor Noah Greenberg stayed with medieval and Renaissance vocal music his entire career, and the British recorder virtuoso Carl Dolmetsch never left the borders of the Baroque.
But when Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Nicholas McGegan started conducting symphony orchestras, these early music specialists made it clear that standard repertory was not off limits for them. Wednesday (June 11) at the Balboa Theatre, Maestro McGegan led the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra in a mainly Brahms program with smashing results.
Although a hefty portion of the evening’s success was garnered by Canadian violinist James Ehnes’ consummate solo in the Brahms Violin Concerto, McGegan applied his insights from years of early music conducting—notably delineating contrapuntal textures and demanding discrete articulation—to bring both the orchestral portion of the Violin Concerto and Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 in A Major into unusually sharp focus.
From the Violin Concerto’s understated, slightly mysterious opening phrases, it was clear that McGegan was aiming for a fresh take on this staple of the repertory. His was a much warmer, even intimate account of a concerto whose breadth and nobility most orchestras champion. Of course, the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra is a large chamber orchestra, about half the number of a typical symphony orchestra, and the Balboa Theatre a more modest-sized hall than the usual North American concert hall, but McGegan capitalized on this situation to bring the audience into the heart of the Brahms concerto.
Ehnes proved the ideal partner in this endeavor, and his suave, immaculate line propelled by a passion roiling just below the surface proved irresistible. Although he displayed muscle when called upon, his approach was more like a polished lieder recitalist than a barking Heldentenor. In the Adagio we were treated to a competition between Principal Oboe Nathan Hughes and Ehnes to see which musician could produce a more drop-dead gorgeous Brahms melody, and I confess it was a draw.
Linking Brahms’ Second Serenade to the vivacious wind serenades of Mozart, McGegan enlivened a work I have always found soporific in most orchestral renditions. Brahms himself eliminated the violins from this opus, and McGegan kept the remaining low strings in a secondary, accompanying mode to allow the winds to dominate the texture with their rambunctuous themes and vibrant colors.
Yes, the Serenade’s Rondo finale is one of the dullest rondos in captivity, but McGegan and his crew made the other four movements sparkle with a relaxed, playful ease that one does not immediately associate with Brahms. I would judge McGegan’s most impressive contribution from the podium was freeing the orchestra’s sound from David Atherton’s controlling rein, allowing a far more buoyant sonority. Atherton demanded precision from his players, but the price from his controlling baton was a steely sonority that was seldom ingratiating.[php snippet=1]
McGegan opened his program with the Chaconne from Mozart’s “Ballet” for his opera Idomeneo, K. 367, a charming miniature suite of contrasting dance moods that alternated pompous ceremony with mellow reflection. In his short program notes from the podium, the guest conductor noted that this Mozart work had never been performed at the Mainly Mozart Festival, an unsurprising fact to those of us who have followed the festival since its inception 25 years ago. Atherton may have loved Mozart’s music, but only that portion of it that made its way into the standard repertory—rarely did he uncover anything exceptional from the vast Mozartean trove.
This season, three other guest conductors will lead the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra—on June 14, June 18 and June 21—at the Balboa. This gives the Festival board’s search committee a chance to judge the conducting chops of a potential new artistic director. And it provides their audiences the opportunity to experience an unusally varied cast of directors on the podium.