Nicholas McGegan (Conductor, harpsichord, flute)
Born January 14, 1950 Saebridgeworth, Hertfordshire, England
The English keyboard player, flutist, and conductor Nicholas McGegan studied piano at London’s Trinity College of Music in 1968. He also learned to play the flute, specializing in the Baroque flute. He pursued his education at Corpus Christi College, Cmbridge, receiving B.A. in 1972, and at Maagdalen College, Oxford, receiving M.A. in 1976. He was active as a flutist, harpsichordist, fortepianist, and pianis in London, where he was also professor of Baroque flute (1973-1979) and music history (1975-1979) and director of early music (1973-1980) at the Royal College of Music.
Nicholas McGegan has been well known for his work as conductor of major symphony orchestras and opera companies worldwide. Equally at home with modern- and period-instrument orchestras, his repertoire ranges from Händel and Vivaldi through Mozart and the complete symphonies of Beethoven to Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten.
Since 1990, Mr. McGegan has also been the Artistic Director of the Göttingen Händel Festival, the oldest festival for baroque music in the world. Under Mr. McGegan’s directorship, the Festival has returned to presenting fully staged performances of Händel operas such as those that marked its launch in 1920 and the revival of interest in that composer’s work. Mr. McGegan’s recording of the Göttingen Ariodante with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson received the Gramophone Award for 1996 in the category of Early Opera.
In the fall of 1997, he made his début with Britain’s Royal Opera, conducting the world premiere of the Mark Morris production of Rameau’s Platée in London. In 2000, he took part in the opening season at the renovated Royal Opera House, conducting Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito with Vesselina Kazarova among the cast. "The Mozart Experience," a recording of Mozart arias with Mr. McGegan conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra was released in 1998.
For sixteen years, Mr. McGegan was Music Director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) where he was recently named that orchestra’s Music Director Laureate, a position that allows him to expand his international commitments while continuing to direct the orchestra in major projects and a number of programs. During his tenure as Music Director, he helped establish the Orchestra as the leading original instrument orchestra in the United States and led them in regularly sold-out subscription seasons. In 1999 the PBO joined Mr. McGegan at the Göttingen Händel Festival for performances of Händel’s opera Arianna and the ballet Terpsichore. Over the years, he and the PBO have collaborated on more than 30 recordings including a world premiere recording of Händel’s Susanna which received a Gramophone Award. Most recently BMG/Deutsche Harmonia Mundi released their recording of Thomas Arne’s Alfred and a recording of suites from Rameau’s Platée and Dardanus in conjunction with the enormously successful American premiere of Platée with the Mark Morris Dance Group.
He is the founder-director of the chamber music group The Arcadian Academy, which specializes in music from the 17th and early 18th centuries, mostly by Italian composers. They tour regularly in the USA and Europe and have won several honors for their recordings. Their debut recording for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi - Scarlatti Cantatas with soprano Christine Brandes - was named "Recording of the Month" and "Editor’s Choice" by Gramophone magazine. The second disk in the Scarlatti series, featuring counte-tenor David Daniels, was released in October 1998 in conjunction with a world tour to Berkeley, Ann Arbor, New York, Vienna, London and Frankfurt. The group has received two Diapasons d’Or for their recordings of Nicola Matteis’ "Ayres for the Violin", volumes I and II. The third Scarlatti CD, featuring Brian Asawa, has been released. A CD of Scarlatti duet cantatas will appear next year.
As guest conductor, Mr. McGegan regularly appears with major symphony orchestras worldwide. Among those in the United States are the Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Houston, Minnesota, Montreal, National (D.C.), New World (Florida), San Francisco, and St. Louis Symphony Orchestras and the Aspen, Grant Park and Ojai Festivals (he was music director for Ojai in 1988). Outside the USA, he has led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) as well as the Jerusalem Symphony, the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and orchestras in Lithuania, Hungary, Austria and Italy. In Australia he has worked with the Sydney, Melbourne, and West Australian Symphonies and in 1999 Mr. McGegan made his first visits to Asia, conducting the Malaysian Philharmonic. He has a strong commitment to promoting young musicians and is a regular mentor to the New World Symphony and was head of the Pre-Classical Program at the Pacific Music Festival.
Mr. McGegan has conducted more than forty operas in Europe and the USA ranging from Monteverdi to Stravinsky. These include the major Mozart operas, many by Händel, and also works by Haydn, Gluck, Rameau, Martin y Soler, Purcell, Landi, and Offenbach.
From 1992- 1998, Mr. McGegan was Principal Guest Conductor at Scottish Opera, and he was Principal Conductor at Sweden’s Drottningholm Theatre from 1993-1995, during which time he conducted his own edition of Philidor’s Tom Jones in conjunction with radio and television broadcasts. He has also conducted at the English National Opera in London, Santa Fe Opera, and Washington Opera. Mr. McGegan was born in England, studied at Cambridge and Oxford Universities and has received an honorary degree from the Royal College of Music of London. He has been awarded the prestigious Händel prize from the Halle Händel Festival in Germany, and in 1996 was presented with the Drottningholmsteaterns Vänners Hederstecken, the honorary medal of the Friends of the Drottningholm Theatre.
Mr. McGegan’s recording contract with BMG/Deutsche Harmonia Mundi is adding a range of opera, orchestral and chamber music projects to a discography that already includes more than 70 recordings on BMG/Conifer, Classic FM, Decca, Erato, Harmonia Mundi USA, Hungaroton, Koch and Reference Recordings.
Mr. McGegan is on the advisory boards of the Maryland Händel Festival and London’s Händel House.
Source – Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Website; Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997)
A musical ambassador
Nicholas McGegan, used to 'standing in front' from his student days at Cambridge, has just been appointed musical director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra
Nicholas McGegan is by temperament and practice exactly the opposite of the type of conductor Hollywood likes to portray. He's genial and relaxed, and flexible in the work situation. He takes a self-evident pleasure in his work and wants it to be pleasurable for the colleagues he works with, too.
Like a lot of conductors, he came to his profession by what looks like accident. His first instrument was the flute, but he also played piano and harpsichord. At college in Cambridge he played a lot of chamber music and got involved in the organising end for some of the larger pieces.
"I was kind of called in to keep the peace. It was a bit like being a cox for rowing. It's always the smallest person. So they asked me to stand in front."
When he got involved in opera and early music, the role was nodding your head, keeping people together. It's not so far from that to real conducting."
Directing from the harpsichord, which he still does, is something he describes, with typical self-deprecation as "a little bit like rubbing one's tummy and the top of one's head in different directions at the same time. Usually one thing goes wrong pretty fast. I'm quite good at playing wrong notes on the harpsichord when I conduct, because you have to sort of dive-bomb onto the keyboard ... and sometimes, if the keyboard's on wheels, it has moved!"
Conducting is a difficult profession to break into. It's hard to get real-life practice. There's no student with an orchestra to work with at home, and managements are generally shy about taking risks with young professionals.
Also, as McGegan points out: "It's a fairly long-lived profession. I think the statistic used to be that the average life of an American orchestral musician is 55, the average life of a conductor is 82. I was lucky. The first two things that I did were kind of noticeable, one was because Michel Corboz went skiing and broke his right arm. The second was when Sir Charles Mackerras lost his voice and couldn't rehearse. You wait for somebody to totter on their perch, basically."
McGegan's approach to his work has been deeply affected by the time he spent playing in rather than standing in front of orchestras. He played the flute at Sadler's Wells, and also worked under most of the period conductors active in London in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He's even archived on tape at the Händel Festival in Göttingen, where he's now the artistic director, playing a flute solo under John Eliot Gardiner in 1981.
"I really do like playing. I think if one just conducts, one can forget what it's like to be on the other side. I actually got to play organ in Messiah last year, for somebody else. It was great. This person conducted absolutely differently to how I would do it. So I had to sit down and say, 'I'm following, not leading'." He chants the words in a mechanical, forced way. "It's a very good lesson, especially when I came in wrong, once. So there you are. Usually when a conductor makes a mistake, you don't hear it!"
His experience, he says, is something which makes him especially sympathetic to orchestras and their problems.
"Basically, if the musicians are having a good time, there's some hope that the performance will be enjoyable. I remember going to some concerts, by nameless conductors, where the thing had clearly been rehearsed to death. At one time, in a Haydn Seasons, I think, there's a sort of Austrian peasant love duet in it. And these two people never looked at each other once. They looked as if they were both frightened out of their wits, and they were both staring at the conductor the whole time. I thought it took some skill to make Haydn totally joyless.
"Musicians are trying to get something right that's just difficult to do. Being a little martinet maestro does not help. Because everybody really is doing their best. And some pieces are just very difficult. Having been on the other side of it all, I'm a little bit more sympathetic than some. Well, a lot more, I hope. One of the things I do work at very hard is trying to organise rehearsals so that you don't waste any time. And remembering that such and such a piece does have a triangle player in it, so that you don't keep him sitting around for three hours and then say, 'Oh we didn't quite get to your bit', because you can guess what his assessment's going to be."
When I ask about his plans for the Irish Chamber Orchestra, he turns the question on its head.
"Shall I say that the orchestra has plans for me?" he says. "I think the orchestra itself wants to expand. By which I mean they would like to have a greater national and international presence. And so to have a conductor such as me (or plenty of others, of course) who works in a number of countries, is quite good. I think the orchestra would like to do more in London, do European festivals, tours of America, that kind of thing, where having a conductor can help. That's a way of both raising money and giving a particular profile. The Irish-American connection never hurts, let it be said. I have a Mac in my name. The family was originally from Westmeath, was in Dublin by the 18th century, and then they jumped ship to Edinburgh. I was actually born in England. My father was the last Scottish one."
When he talks about his role as musical director, he brings in a lot more than directly musical concerns. He instances a concert he's due to give with the Philadelphia Orchestra as an opportunity for the ICO.
"I can wear my Irish Chamber Orchestra T-shirt for a couple of days, as it were, and say to John Kelly, the orchestra's chief executive: 'OK. Write a letter to every single Irishman you know in Philadelphia who could give money to the Irish Chamber Orchestra. We'll get them tickets, and we'll have a big party afterwards. And then, maybe there's enough of a support base there for the Irish Chamber Orchestra to come and do a concert'." Above and beyond the role of musical ambassador, he sees a function in quality assurance, making sure that the guest conductors are well chosen, and as musical director, he also sees himself having a responsibility "for the direct guarantee of playing standards".
He's greatly looking forward to doing the modern, non period-instruments repertoire, as well as taking the period-instruments repertoire to a modern chamber orchestra, "particularly a modern chamber orchestra that's flexible enough to enjoy it.
Also, as a flute player and a keyboard player, it's great to work with a string orchestra. Not being a violinist is fantastic. You're not sitting there saying, 'Well, I bow it like this'. I can say, 'Well, this is the musical effect I would like. How it's achieved, we can talk about'."
One of the things that fires him up about the ICO is the fact that "I think the organisation is very well run. John Kelly is amazing. I don't think he can sleep more than a couple of hours a night. When you've got that kind of energy in the management, it makes the musical possibilities much greater. You can go to certain orchestras and know that they are an unutterably miserable group of people. And it doesn't matter who's conducting them, they are a miserable bunch. I really enjoy working with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. It's not a question of youth. As you get older, of course, orchestras get younger. There is a very positive energy flying around at rehearsals. I think that makes them enjoyable to conduct."
For McGegan, "An ideal chamber orchestra should be able to play at least the majority of Haydn symphonies and the majority of Mozart piano concertos. That is to say, using maybe one flute, two oboes, a bassoon and a couple of horns, who are not necessarily in every concert, but at some time during the year they come in. Because that is a very flexible repertoire. If you've got 50 Haydn symphonies that you can play, and 16 Mozart piano concertos or violin concertos, horn concertos, even, it does expand your repertoire. And then there are the 20th-century, Dumbarton Oaks type pieces, which also go with that kind of repertoire."
So the expansion of the ICO from its current 19 strings to a group with readily available wind players is something that he'll be working towards.
By the end of this year's Killaloe Festival, McGegan will have conducted just four programmes with the ICO, with just a single piece from the 19th century (a Mendelssohn string symphony), surrounded by works by earlier and later composers - Corelli, Geminiani, Locatelli, Purcell, Mozart and Händel at one end, Stravinsky, Schnittke, Britten, Tippett, Vaughan Williams and Maw at the other.
There's great interest surrounding the first Irish performance of the virtuosic Händel Gloria for soprano and strings, to which McGegan gave its official modern première in Göttingen last month.
"Well, it's not Messiah. It's not like finding Parsifal under your bed. It's not a major masterpiece. It's a major work, but it's not the crowning achievement of his career. But it's a very, very good piece. It's about 12 minutes long. It's quite difficult. Lots of semiquavers, a virtuoso vehicle for one singer. It's a kind of baroque version of Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate. It's the exact equivalent of that kind of piece, except that, instead of a blazing 'Alleluia' at the end, it's got a very virtuoso 'Amen'. It's going to have a very popular shelf life. I think every soprano in the universe is going to sing this, instead of 'Rejoice' at their auditions from now on."
Source: Irish Times Friday, July 13, 2001