Guest conductor Nic McGegan expresses enthusiasm for Santa Barbara Symphony’s upcoming performance of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major has it all.
Just ask Nic McGegan, the guest conductor who will lead the Santa Barbara Symphony as it celebrates the 300th anniversary of Bach’s iconic work.
“It’s got absolutely everything: great tunes, great rhythms. It has fabulous flute parts, violin parts,” Maestro McGegan told the News-Press by phone from his Berkeley home. “I love every single thing about it.”
Maestro McGegan will share his enthusiasm when he leads the concert at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and 3 p.m. Nov. 14 at The Granada.
In addition to the Brandenberg concerto, the symphony under Maestro McGegan’s baton will perform two works written to celebrate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 between France and England: Rameau’s Dances from the opera “Naïs,” and Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks.”
The orchestra will also play Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G Major during a concert that will shine the spotlight on the symphony’s principal violist Erik Rynearson.
The concert is an all-Baroque program.
“It (Baroque) speaks my language. I try to understand that language,” said Maestro McGegan, who, in 2019-20, completed his 34-year tenure as the music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale.
He continues to enjoy conducting Baroque concerts as the orchestra’s music director laureate.
“First of all, I don’t regard it as music by dead people with fancy clothes and white wigs on their heads,” said Maestro McGegan, a 71-year-old English native who remains the principal guest conductor of the Pasadena Symphony. “It’s music by living, breathing human beings with passions, with joy and grief and everything else.
“I get the joy of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. It’s one of the most joyful pieces. It’s timeless,” he said.
“Part of the whole Baroque music appeal is that it’s over the top,” he continued. “Bach writes counterpoint because that’s his natural language. He’s also writing something you can tap your foot to or hum along to. I find the music immensely approachable.”
Bach’s Brandenburg concertos didn’t achieve the fame they have today overnight, said Maestro McGegan, who clearly loves the history behind music as much as their melodies.
Bach gave the concertos in 1721 to Christian Ludwig, the margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt and the cousin of Russian Emperor Nicholas II. Maestro McGegan explained Bach used the manuscripts as a job application for patronage. He knew the margrave could pay him better than the prince he was working for.
“It was ‘Look what I can do! Why don’t you hire me?”
Bach got the gig, and the magrave’s musicians played the concertos, which have remained classics.
As he talks about music and history, Maestro McGegan accents his conversations with humor and friendliness in the same way rhythms and crescendos accent the symphonies he conducts. His words flow in a legato style as he voices a youthful enthusiasm for timeless music.
“I’m not from a musical family, at least not for the last couple hundred years,” Maestro McGegan said. “The last musicians in my family were organists in England from the 1790s. My parents were both artists. My father was an architectural historian, and my mother was a painter of some note.
“Going into music meant I could do something where I constantly wasn’t being corrected by my parents,” Maestro McGegan said. “I could do my own thing.”
And he did.
“I started on the piano when I was 5,” Mr. McGegan said. “I started on the flute when I was 8 or 9.
“When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a composer, but I don’t do solitary very well. I got bored with that,” he said. “I’d much rather be playing chamber music or in an orchestra with other people.
“I first got into Baroque music at the University of Cambridge when I was 18 or 19. That was great fun. We played instruments from the 18th century,” he said. “I never looked back.”
Mr. McGegan earned his bachelor’s in music in 1972 at Oxford and his master’s in the mid-1970s at Cambridge.
Maestro McGegan’s enthusiasm for the Nov. 13-14 extends beyond the Bach concerto.
He noted Handel’s “Royal Fireworks” made its debut in an outdoor concert in Sir James’ Park, close to what’s now Buckingham Palace. That drew a big enough crowd to create a backlog of horses and buggies on the London Bridge.
“Seventeen thousand people showed up to hear either the performance or dress rehearsal. They showed up in carriages,” Maestro McGegan said. “It created one of the biggest traffic jams to ever happen.”
“I expected it rained in England,” he said. “When other Brits and I try to organize anything outdoors, it rains.”
Maestro McGegan said the king of England asked Handel to write “Royal Fireworks” to celebrate the end of its war with France, which involved fighting in Canada and India. “They (England and France) both thought they won, which is a useful thing in a war. In 1748, they decided they had enough and had a peace treaty.”
“Handel was your go-to guy for grandeur and coronations,” Maestro McGegan said. “He was lucky to be living in London, the biggest part
“At the direction of the king, it had no string instruments,” Maestro McGegan said. “The king actually said, ‘No fiddles.’ He wanted nice, loud instruments, and they had to be loud enough to sound over the fireworks.”
Since then, the “Royal Fireworks” has been performed by a full complement of strings and winds, as will be the case at the Santa Barbara Symphony concert.
The Santa Barbara Symphony concert also features Rameau’s Dances.
“Ramaeu was two years older than Handel,” Maestro McGegan said. “He wrote some of the most beguiling dance music in the Baroque period. The French ballets were always the best and the grandest, and they had an infinite supply of money. They were enormously spectacular.”
Maestro McGegan explained when performed with dancers, Ramaeu’s Dances pantomimes Olympic athletes in sports such as javelin, running, boxing and Greek wrestling.
“I’ve done this piece on stage. It isn’t just jumping up and down in their fancy shoes. It’s like a silent movie, if you like.”
There won’t be dancers at the symphony concert, but Maestro McGegan explained listeners will be able to imagine the dancers and the Olympic athletes they’re emulating from the tunes.
No surprise there. That’s the power of Baroque music.