Guest conductor Nicholas McGegan, over the years, has brought the Milwaukee Symphony kicking and screaming into the 18th century. OK, not kicking and screaming; the MSO actually had a nice time getting used to older music.
McGegan, known for his way with Baroque music, was principal guest conductor for several years and has been a frequent guest regardless of official status. While McGegan, 60, came up through the early music movement in England, he was never doctrinaire about it. Thus he was uniquely situated to bring Baroque style to symphony orchestras, which are essentially vehicles for late Classical and Romantic music. He’s a very accomplished musician, and it helps that he has a cheerful disposition and a good sense of humor. The orchestra always seems to have a good time when McGegan’s in town.
He’s here now, getting ready to lead the orchestra through Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons cycle of violin concerti, with Frank Almond as soloist and co-leader; Thomas Adés Three Studies from Couperin and Schubert’s youthful Symphony No.4.
“I’m having a ball!” he said, after rehearsal Wednesday. “I know the orchestra very well, we’ve become friends. This is like the best cocktail party in town, with great music.
“I get to play (harpsichord) continuo in The Four Seasons. Some bits I lead, some bits Frank leads.”
Vivaldi’s cycle, with its evocations of warming spring breezes, summer bird calls, chattering teeth in winter and so forth, has become a go-to piece for musicians of all sorts. There’s a salsa Four Seasons, a bluegrass version and many more.
“People are doing it on kotos, now,” McGegan said. “We won’t be giving it a Ricki Lake makeover. But since it imitates birdcalls and drunks, we don’t have to keep strict time. It gives us a good deal of latitude.”
“French music is supremely elegant,” McGegan said, “but to some extent Couperin’s music is rather more for the person playing it. Some music is a half-circle completed by the audience. Some music is a full circle, and if we listen we are eavesdropping on something already complete.
“Tom Adès has tried to open the circle of Couperin’s music to the audience. He’s orchestrated the it in a way that explains what it’s all about. All that ornament can get gnarly. Tom wrote out every ornament and put it in exact time. It looks dreadful on paper; I conduct it absolutely strictly. But the net result is a curious, dream-like quality.”
McGegan marveled at an orchestration with only the lowest woodwinds — alto flute, bass clarinet — and a rare bass marimba, which the MSO had to rent.
“And there are two small string orchestras, one on either side, so there’s this stereo stuff,” McGegan said, with enthusiasm. “Adès turns Couperin into 21st century music.”
Schubert was a 19-year-old school teacher in suburban Vienna in 1816, when he wrote his fourth symphony. It went unpublished until 1884. Performances remain relatively rare, but McGegan does it all the time. Orchestras, including the MSO, have this habit of asking him to do it. McGegan suspects the music directors keep the big Schubert symphonies, No. 8 (“Unfinished”) and No. 9 (“The Great”), for themselves.
“I’m the conductor who gets asked to do the pieces the others don’t,” he said, cheerfully.
“This one is called ‘The Tragic,’ which makes it sound grander than it really is. It’s just in a minor key.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful piece, although when it begins it doesn’t really sound like Schubert. It really could be anybody. As the piece goes on, it’s as if he is finding himself as a composer as he’s writing it.”
McGegan in Milwaukee: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, abbreviated Classical Connections program with narration, $15-$45; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, full program, $25-$93; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, $24-$77. All concerts will take place in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, visit the MSO website, call the MSO ticket line (414-291-7605) or the Marcus Center box office.