By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Pasadena Symphony; Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Mendelssohn: The Fair Melusina Overture
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 (Nareh Arghamanayan, pianist)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)
Saturday, March 31, 2012 • Ambassador Auditorium
Next performance: April 28 (NOTE: This is a change from the original review)
Pianist Nareh Arghamanayan, conductor Nicholas McGegan, and the Pasadena Symphony rehearse Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 for their concerts yesterday.
For more than a quarter-century, Nicholas McGegan has made an international reputation as a Baroque music specialist, primarily through leading his San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. However, in recent years McGegan (now age 62) has broadened his repertoire and the Pasadena Symphony grabbed the opportunity to add him to its schedule of guest conductors for both this season and next.
McGegan is a compact perpetual bundle of energy on the podium with a seemingly unending smile (even when a cell phone went off between movements of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, McGegan merely looked over at the offending holder and smiled until the phone was turned off).
He conducts without a baton and clearly telegraphs his intentions not only to the musicians but also to the audience. He also seated the orchestra in an unconventional manner (for the PSO, at any rate), with the violins divided left and right, the cellos and basses to the left and the timpani perched on a platform to the right of the orchestra.
However, the key questions about any conductor are (a) how does the music sound? and (b) how well does the orchestra play? Both answers were strongly affirmative in yesterday afternoon’s performance (the concert repeated last night). McGegan shapes phrases lovingly and elicits rhythmic precision when it is called for. The orchestra responded as if McGegan was a familiar presence; overall this was a scintillating afternoon of music making.
A major portion of the enjoyment came courtesy of young Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanayan, who was an elegant soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466. Wearing a wine-colored gown, she bobbed and swayed to the music to get in the mood even when she wasn’t playing. When she was in the spotlight, she produced a silken tone, punctuated by occasional sharp attacks, and a carefully thought-out concept of this familiar, albeit somewhat dark work, one of just two (out of 27) piano concerti that Mozart wrote in a minor key. Winner of the 2008 Montreal International Piano Competition, she is a name to remember. McGegan and the ensemble accompanied sensitively.
After intermission, McGegan led a buoyant performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). At 46 minutes long, the tempos were brisk but they didn’t seem rushed. The orchestra (which numbered about 50, the size that Beethoven reportedly assembled for the work’s premiere) was led by its winds (notably Principal Oboist Lara Wickes) and played expertly. The members seem to relish exploring and meeting the challenges that come with having a different conductor for each program.
The afternoon opened with a rarity: Mendelssohn’s The Fair Melusina Overture, which has unmistakable overtones of the composer’s two previous efforts in the concert-overture genre: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and The Hebrides, most notably in their allusions to the rolling sea. McGegan and Co. played it with considerable panache. At the end, McGegan beamed — as he did all afternoon.
• The PSO placed flowers on the seats of those subscribers who have renewed for the 2012-2013 season. It was a nice touch and also a way to remind others to either renew or become season-ticket holders.
• The season’s final concert on May 15 will see James DePreist, who has served as the PSO’s music advisor since Jorge Mester departed as music director two years ago, leading a program of Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Wagner’s Götterdämerung, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, and Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with Christine Brewer as soloist.
• When McGegan appears next season on Feb. 9, his program will pair Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (with the PSO’s Principal Clarinet Donald Foster as soloist) with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. McGegan will be one of two conductors repeating from this season (the other is Mei-Ann Chen, who will open next season on Oct. 6).
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.