Umi Garett, Nicholas McGegan at the Pasadena Symphony

By Ted Ayala

I used to be among those that believed that the day of the capital G Great conductors—the likes of Beecham, Furtwängler, Mengelberg, et al—was something that had gone the way of Quadraphonic sound, Dynagroove, and bell-bottom pants. OK, there might be just a handful of conductors—literally only about five or less—alive today that can approach those aforementioned exalted names in greatness. Of those, I will go out on a limb and declare that of all living conductors, Nicholas McGegan may be the most constantly satisfying and, indeed, greatest of them all.

That might sound like a stretch to some readers. McGegan is a well respected name in period performance circles, but not necessarily a conductor on your average critic’s “top 5.” That’s too bad. He may not be the young hunkasaurus that would be the dream of any classical marketing team’s dreams, but to anybody that attends a concert to listen to music that shouldn’t matter. McGegan possesses a quality rare in a modern conductor: An immediately identifiable style.

His performances are buoyant, with a lucid sense of pacing and rhythm, and oozing with charm—the last a rare trait nowadays.

Whether he’s conducting in front of a crowd of thousands at the Hollywood Bowl, or an audience of a few hundred at the Ambassador Auditorium—as he did at the Pasadena Symphony’s Saturday afternoon concert—McGegan has that uncanny knack to impress his own particular conception of sound upon an orchestra.

His graceful, feather-light performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 was something to marvel over again and again. Woodwind textures cut through with just enough tang through the Pasadena Symphony’s velvety strings, melodies breathed with almost quasi-vocal presence, rhythms were never allowed to sag. He could whip up a fine peasant rowdiness as his lusty rendition of the third movement “Furiant” proved, while the finale all but bubbled with the effervescence of a freshly opened bottle of Pilsner Urquell. This was a performance that would have made Vaclav Neumann and Karel Ancerl proud, not to mention another British exponent of Czech music, the late Sir Charles Mackerras. A truly great performance of this somewhat neglected symphony.

He was joined earlier in the program by 13-year-old pianist, Umi Garrett, in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The brief biographical notes in the program mentioned several television appearances, including one on the Ellen show that won raves from its audience. That might be a sign of quality to some, but I can’t help but feel apprehensive reading that sort of pedigree, which usually seem to appease audience members that are more nostalgic for the circus side show than good musicianship. So many “wunderkind” fail to live up to their hype, instead cranking out performances that are either overwrought versions of some other pianist’s recording or, worse, are simply bland.

Whatever apprehensions I had at the start of the concert, however, were quickly dispersed. Garrett is the real thing—a genuinely talented musician, not merely an efficient technician. Young pianists often fall into the trap of needing to over emphasize their technical skill, engaging in histrionics that often have nothing to do with the score. But Garrett exercised a cool, sober, and surprisingly mature control over the music. “Don’t pay attention to me,” her playing seemed to say, “pay attention to Chopin.” It was an impression heightened when she obliged the audience with an encore, the Polish composer’s fourth Etude from his Opus 10 set. She pulled back on the tempo, eschewing the post-Horowitz torrential blur of notes, and allowed the music to be music. Her musicianship was remarkable and bold—all the more so given her sincere humility to the music. This is one wunderkind to definitely watch.

The Pasadena Symphony proved to be a flexible and dapper accompanist, providing some gorgeous bassoon playing in the middle movement.

The last few years have been pretty staid at the Pasadena Symphony. But if the performances under McGegan and David Lockington, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor and music director respectively, are any indication, the Pasadena Symphony seems to be on the cusp of a golden age. Long may it last.