Meet the Music Makers - Philharmonia Baroque

In conversation with conductor and music director of Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan:

UChicago Presents: Did you feel a strong pull towards the baroque and classical repertoires early on?

Nicholas McGegan: Well, I went to the University of Cambridge, and there, one of my teachers—funnily enough, in another subject, the acoustics of buildings and instruments—had a collection of ancient wind instruments. I was a flute player, and he lent me an 18th century flute—a real one! I started to play it, which was great fun. But you couldn’t have a teacher; we’re talking 1970. So, you had to get a treatise, usually the original, out of the library—which you could do in those days—and look at the fingering charts. I got to be able to play it, I suppose reasonably.

I got lucky, because another person I met at Cambridge was Christopher Hogwood, who died last year. He said, “Why don’t you come play some sonatas? I can play my harpsichord, and you can play your old flute.” He invited me to do some concerts, and it was absolutely wonderful. I joined his orchestra pretty much as soon as I left Cambridge. At that time, there were other groups getting together in the UK, and so I decamped from Cambridge to Oxford, but would come down to London to play in some concerts. I don’t know how good they were, but we thought of ourselves as mavericks—I’m sure we weren’t, really, but we thought we were. It was a very fun thing: we’d be playing some [pieces] on instruments of the period that hadn’t been played since the composer wrote it. We all had a great sense of excitement about it.

I was teaching there at the Royal College of Music, playing a lot, recording a lot. Then I was asked to come to teach early music at Washington University in St. Louis, and that’s what brought me to the States.

UCP: You've conducted the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for 30 years—nearly as long as the Philharmonia itself has existed, which has been around for 36.

NG: That’s right. I didn’t found it. It was more of a—I wouldn’t say Berkeley commune, they didn’t play enough for that—but they thought that conductors were unnecessary. I think you could say the rehearsals were a bit like Quaker meetings; everyone had something to say. As a result, I’m not sure a very great deal got done, especially if people disagreed.

Eventually, I think someone decided that what they needed was one music director who could help organize things... A conductor is, we hope, a mild tyrant, which, of course, some of the first musicians slightly fled from, because that’s caused modern orchestras. I came in 1985 and was, I’d say, very modest in my conducting aims. But it’s become quite a big organization now, with a fundraising office and a board, and we’re in the musician’s union and all that sort of stuff. It’s actually much more like a regular orchestra, more than its founders ever thought it would become. I think it’s a good thing, actually, because it means we can give a lot of concerts, we can be organized, we have a wonderful staff who deal with the administration… We’ve become, as it were, quite establishment, really.

UCP: How many other early music groups were there in the Bay Area when you arrived, or were you guys mavericks, to borrow a word you used earlier?

NG: We were the only ones at the time. One of the things that makes early music grow and flourish in the Bay Area—and also in Boston, of course—is that there’s an incredibly large number of great universities. Back in the ’80s, Stanford had an early music program, and one could get a doctorate in early music. I don’t think you can anymore, but you used to be able to. Cal Berkeley had, in those days, a wonderful chorale, and we had people—and still do—who teach at the University and play in the orchestra. Plus, the whole Bay Area is a very fertile place for classical music: there’s the San Francisco Opera, the Symphony, the Ballet, the Oakland Symphony… There’s a wonderful concert hall in Walnut Creek, actually.

UCP: Yeah, the Lesher Center! I grew up in Walnut Creek.

NG: Absolutely. And Stanford has a concert hall… All these things have happened since the 1980s. It is a wonderful place for classical music, and we have, of course, an incredibly smart audience. It’s a very diverse audience; we’re different from Boston in the sense that things happen in Boston, but Philharmonia plays in Berkeley, in Stanford, in San Francisco, it goes up to Santa Rosa—we’ve got a big catchment area, with 4 or 5 million people. But because of the dreadful traffic in the Bay Area, we go to the concert halls rather than everyone coming to us, which is what happens at the San Francisco Opera. But we go to the different cities, which, in some cases, are nearly 100 miles apart. It’s an ideal place for what we do, in actual fact. The Philharmonia is smaller than a symphony orchestra; we can play in smaller places. We’re a very maneuverable ship.

UCP: The program you're bringing to UofC, "Italian Baroque Music from the Jewish Ghetto," spotlights Salomone Rossi, a composer who might be less familiar to audiences. What made you think Rossi would be an ideal focal point to build a Sessions program around?

NG: Sessions… is part music, part information, part background on a particular subject. Very often, it’s tied to a set of concerts. For example, last year, we did Handel’s Joshua oratorio, and we did a [Sessions] program about Handel’s Old Testament heroes—that is to say, Joshua, Samson, and so on. We do a lot of these in collaboration with the JCC in San Francisco, and for that, we get an audience who are not only very smart musically, but also know their Old Testament! In a way, we’re performing music, of course, but we’re also informing on stuff. We do a lot of these, including the Rossi, in collaboration with the Magnes Museum of Jewish [Art and Life] in Berkeley. Francesco Spagnolo, who is the head of [the museum], is from Italy, originally, and he is an expert on Jewish Italian ritual. We collaborated with him on the Rossi program because that’s absolutely his subject. When we do the program, he talks a little bit about Jewish life in northern Italy 400 years ago, and we commemorated the 500th anniversary of the founding of the ghetto in Venice last season. I put the music together, and he and I talk, and he shows lots of pictures of the oldest synagogues in Mantua and Venice, and so on, and we build up a portrait of Salomone Rossi.

And we mustn’t forget that he had a sister. We don’t actually know very much about her; we don’t have a picture of her or anything. We only have the name that everybody called her, which is Madama Europa. Sort of a name like Lady Gaga, I think—nobody really knew what her name was. Europa could have been her name, or it could have been a role that she sang. She was one of the very first opera stars. She sang for Monteverdi, who wrote some of the first great opera. We know that Madama Europa sang at his court, and that she sang in some of his operas, and that everybody adored her. So, we have a singer that will sing some of the music that she would have sung. I’m not sure much of the actual music survives, but we have similar pieces by other people.

What we also build up is a picture of musical Jewish life in that period. Someone like Rossi straddled several worlds: he had the world in the ghetto, [where] he wrote lots of music for use in the synagogue, which are all in Hebrew. The publication is extremely difficult to read, because the music goes left to right, but the Hebrew goes right to left! Then, Rossi also wrote Italian madrigals about love, which were for the court in Mantua. There was also a Hebrew theater company in Mantua, performing in Ladino, I presume. So, there was a very thriving Jewish life.

Actually, one of the things Francesco talks about is the fact that the walls of the ghetto in Venice were very porous, so Jewish people would sneak out through someone’s window to go to the opera. And lots of Christians would come to the synagogue because the music was so good!

So, it’s a picture of life in northern Italy in the early 17th century, concerned with life in the ghetto, life in the synagogue, and the founding of opera—through one man, who was involved in every aspect of musical life in these places, both sacred and secular.

UCP: What other interesting findings have you and Francesco stumbled upon for this program?

NG: There’s one song in particular—a wedding piece for two choruses—which is in Hebrew, but the last syllable or two is echoed by the other chorus, which sometimes makes sense in Hebrew and sometimes in Italian! One of the things that Francesco [found] that’s absolutely amazing is a poem or sonnet, which is written in Italian, but [written] above it is a Hebrew poem in exactly the same sounds that’s about something completely different. They mean different things but they sound the same! And it’s really remarkable because this is the era where things—especially music—start to be published. So, we have a lot of these.

We also have some slightly later music from the early 18th century from a composer called Benedetto Marcello. He writes psalms in Italian, but at the beginning of each one, it’ll say, “The tune of this was sung by the German Jews or Spanish Jews used to sing this piece.” Then he does a sort of instrumental riff on it for cello. They’re absolutely amazing and also in both Hebrew and Italian.

UCP: The program unites two recent PBO projects: its informative Sessions concert series (2014) and its "Jews & Music" initiative (2015). What inspired these projects? Why did they feel important or necessary?

NG: One of the things we do here for our Sessions concerts—which are quite wide-ranging in topic—is bring a different kind of audience. When we do it [in California], tickets are $25, plus discounts for students, and we have a big reception afterward where people can talk to us and have a little party. The concerts last about an hour and a half, with no intermission, so there’s time for socializing afterwards.

We’ve done several about the Mendelssohn family, and that’s because they still exist. Cara Mendelssohn actually comes to our concerts at Stanford. She is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Mendelssohn! She lives in Palo Alto and must be in her 80s. But there are quite a few Mendelssohns around. People like Steven Isserlis, who’s Jewish, is coming to do something about Jewish musical life in the 18th century, but most particularly in England.

We’re developing one now about Handel’s Messiah. Of course, everyone listens to the Messiah and goes during Christmas; it’s just about the world’s most popular piece of classical music. But there’s a whole series of books now—one in particular, called Tainted Glory—which [argue] that the librettist of the Messiah was actually quite anti-Semitic. His choosing of verses to go in that particular order is deliberate. So, you get things like “Thou shalt break them” followed by “Hallelujah.” It’s all based on the idea that [Christians]—particularly British Protestants—are the real, “true” Hebrews, and that everybody else has been tainted by outside influences, Catholicism, and everything else. Then take an oratorio by Handel like Judas Maccabeus, which isn’t about Judas Maccabeus at all. It’s an anti-Catholic, anti-Scottish oratorio where Judas Maccabeus is seen as an English Protestant hero bashing Catholics! These things aren’t quite what they seem.

So, is Messiah a sort of simple guide to Christianity, or does it actually have a slightly less hopeful message? We’ll be able to play bits of Messiah, and I’m going to bring Mike Marissen, the guy who wrote [Tainted Glory], to come and talk about it.

I think it’s great when you have old pieces you can actually discuss—they’re not necessarily beloved chestnuts. We just did a Rameau opera here called Temple of Glory and there was a line about who makes a good king—something like, “If you behave like that, you’ll just be a tyrant!” People applauded, for obvious reasons. It’s amazing to think that a line by Voltaire in an opera from 1745 could create a little frisant in an audience in 2017!

UCP: The Philharmonia Baroque Orchesta's upcoming season is called "A Matter of Character.” I’m curious what guided your programming decisions for next season—you already mentioned the Messiah and Steven Isserlis’s project.

NG: I should say that programming for a period instrument orchestra is sort of like running a restaurant. Planning the menu, you’ve got to have something for everybody—you have to have the gluten-free, you have to have the lactose-free, and you’ve got to have the vegetarian option. If we have six concerts, generally four of them are Baroque music and two will be classical or something else. Then we always have two choral concerts. Once you get a very sophisticated, musically savvy audience, that also means they have very strong likes and dislikes. We had someone who wouldn’t come to choral music, somebody who wouldn’t come to classical music.

Then we have this new thing we’re starting in October, an absolutely new piece that has been written for us: The Passion of Judah, by a Scottish friend of mine and composer, Sally Beamish. I don’t want people to come to our concerts because they want to be safe, that they won’t hear any modern music. And period instruments have an awful lot to offer in terms of sound for living composers. So, obviously a passion is something that’s rooted in 18th century music, and this is a different take, if you’d like: a passion like a Bach passion, but seen from the point of view of Judas. The music is very exciting. Every year or two, we have a piece that’s been written for us, always with a composer who works with us and asks us, “What can I do on an 18th century trumpet that I can’t on a modern one?” Not to look at period instruments for their disadvantages—they’re softer, they can’t play as many notes—but for their advantages: they have different tone colors, they’re often more characterful, they can do all sorts of slides and trills that modern instruments can’t. This of course keeps our musicians on their toes, because some of these pieces are quite difficult.

We had an interesting one by Jake Heggie, an opera composer, [who] wrote us a one-act opera a number of years ago on the myth of Persephone going down to hell to marry Pluto. Some of the audience was very skeptical; they didn’t want to hear this. But it had incredible emotional power and was a huge success. One of the singers was Patti LuPone, can you imagine? Everybody adored working with her. We did that at Ravinia, and it was wonderful.

And none of these pieces are pastiche. All of these composers are writing in their own style, but for period instruments. I think pastiche would not be what we’re after. We can all write pastiche, but it’s so much more interesting if they’re writing in their own voice.