By Ted AYALA
It was a slimmed down Pasadena Symphony that met the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium on Saturday night, March 31. Nicholas McGegan, respected conductor of Baroque music, turned his period performance touch onto the music of Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Though the Pasadena Symphony’s smooth strings was lost by its reduction down to a chamber orchestra size, McGegan’s interpretative control paid off with rhythmically taut playing and textural clarity of airy beauty.
His best moment by far was in the program’s opening, “Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusina Overture.” Though often treated as a poor country cousin to the composer’s far better known “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Hebrides Overtures,” McGegan and the Pasadena Symphony reveled in Mendelssohn’s masterly orchestration and use of themes.
The dreamy clarinet arpeggio that opens the work, played superbly by the ever eloquent Donald Foster, immediately set the stage for McGegan’s vision of the work. Moving along swiftly, but never rushed, he gave the music just enough muscle tone, never allowing it to become soggy as Mendelssohn can often become in the hands of lesser musicians, but neither did it run against the grain of the music. It was a master class in judicious tempi and tone coloring.
Pianist Nareh Arghamanayan joined McGegan in the following work, Mozart’s dark hued “Piano Concerto No. 20.” Arghamanayan and McGegan both seemed to be of one mind in their view of the work as antecedent to Beethoven. Dramatic fire and brilliant playing marked their traversal of the concerto. Yet where McGegan had earlier been able to maintain a superb balancing act between grace and power, in the Mozart concerto, both he and Arghamanayan at times stated Mozart’s musical ideas far too bluntly.
This impression was reinforced by Arghamanayan’s playing, which seemed more preoccupied with making a masterful show of strength, both through her playing and her demeanor on the piano bench, rather than on allowing the music to shape the interpretation. The concerto’s central Romanze especially suffered, sounding unusually prosaic and lumpen. The finale’s cadenza was also marred by, to these ears, exaggerated contrasts in pianissimo and fortissimo playing. There is no doubt as to Arghamanayan’s technical ability, which is impressive indeed. But she may need time and experience to temper her willful approach to Mozart. Despite this reviewer’s reservations about her playing, it should be noted that Arghamanayan’s playing was received with very warm applause.
McGegan returned solo for the program’s closing half: Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony.” His interpretation matched his podium gestures: feisty, punchy, and brimming with good humor. Vibrato was carefully applied. Though McGegan was, thankfully, no puritan, allowing the orchestra enough warmth of tone.
Excising the first movement’s exposition repeat, it was a headlong rush to the coda with McGegan. There was a no-nonsense approach to the music, never dawdling or lingering unduly. Though one wished for more heft at the movement’s grinding climax. “The Funeral March” was taken at a swift clip, as per Beethoven’s metronome marking. McGegan shaped the music handsomely, though it lost much gravitas in the process. However, the Scherzo and Finale displayed McGegan’s period performance attributes to fine degree. The French horns sounded noble and buoyant in the scherzo’s trio; playing with athletic precision. In the finale, McGegan and the orchestra seemed carried away by the music’s breezy character, though the closing bars of the coda were stated with great force.
The relationship between the orchestra and McGegan seemed all smiles. The Pasadena Symphony delivered, as per usual, first rate playing that it has accorded to all its rotating cast of guest conductors. McGegan returns next season in a program featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. It should be interesting to hear how McGegan’s period performance background will inform his interpretation.