McGegan does madness

We’re doing a program with Nick McGegan this week. Nick conducts us twice a season and the orchestra has always enjoyed seeing come him back.

This time the program was a little outside his “normal” range with us: Mendelssohn Hebrides overture and the Reformation symphony, followed by Symphonie fantastique. I’m told the program was originally intended for a former music director of ours and that Nick generously took it over when that didn’t work out.

We’ve done two Mendelssohn symphonies with Nick before; the third (Scottish) and the fourth (Italian). This one may have been the most successful of the three performances. It’s not a great piece, but I’ve loved it ever since I did it in youth orchestra at the age of 12 or 13 (I grew up on an old recording of it with Toscanini and the NBC orchestra). It’s a fun piece for the violas, as Mendelssohn wisely leaves the violins out of the chorales at the beginning of the first and last movements and substitutes violas on the A string instead. It’s an old trick for churchy-sounding music. Beethoven used it in the last movement of the ninth symphony, and many other composers have used it since (Puccini loved the sound, and used it to great effect in Madama Butterfly, which we played last week). Perhaps it’s intended as an anachronism; a harking back to the sound of viols. Regardless of the motivation, it’s great fun for the altoid section.

But the most successful part of the program was the Berlioz. Nick’s take is a little different, as one might expect – in particular, very literal as regards markings, some of which are very strange. Nick’s training in Baroque rhetoric leads him to find character and gestures everywhere he looks in a score, and Symphonie fantastique is full of places to find them.

And we had real bells this time; a set of two from the Pittsburgh Symphony, cast in a bell foundry in Cincinnati (our third hornist, who’s from Cincinnati, remembers touring the foundry). They sound amazing. They’re incredibly loud, for one thing; the percussionist has to wear both ear plugs and a protective headset, and, even thought they’re offstage, I saw some violinists reaching for earplugs before the bells came in. But they sound just like church bells, and it really makes an enormous difference in that passage.

The first live performance I ever heard of Symphonie fantastique was Ozawa conducting San Francisco in the Foothill College gymnasium (which was a surprising good place to hear an orchestra, being both loud and intimate). I vividly remember the percussionist responsible for the bells getting himself thoroughly confused and being off by a bar for most of the passage, to the great (and very evident) frustration of Ozawa.

Not a problem we had during what has been a very good week.

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