Nicholas McGegan with The Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom

On August 30, 2011 |
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Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan, longtime director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom on Sunday evening, August 27, in what appeared to be a hodgepodge of unrelated works: Bach, Handel, Mozart and Mendelssohn. Violinist Stephen Rose and soprano Teresa Wakim were soloists. Oh, and throw in the Blossom Festival Chorus, too. But what seemed like a dog’s breakfast on paper proved to be a satisfying and enjoyable program for a beautiful late summer evening. The Blossom lawn was packed, and there were long lines of cars waiting to park, resulting in what seemed like an usually large number of latecomers.

The first thing that one notices about Nicholas McGegan’s conducting is its idiosyncratic nature. He was not conducting beats; he was conducting music. He does not use a baton, but with gestures — sometimes flailing of arms and little dances on the podium — he led the reduced-sized orchestra as a large chamber ensemble. He also called upon the Cleveland Orchestra’s legendary ability to listen to themselves and to respond to the music as it progressed. Rather than a conductor/dictator, Mr. McGegan was more of a “suggester” for the music, prompting performances of subtlety and refinement, but with energy and rhythmic awareness. One can well understand the affinity such notable early music performers as Loraine Hunt Lieberson and Christine Brandes have with Mr. McGegan.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183. Mr. McGegan favored brisk tempos, but with an air of wit and sophistication. The delicate playing of the second movement was especially appealing. Here and at several other points later in the concert, Mr. McGegan was not afraid to bring the orchestra down to a true pianissimo. At least from inside the pavilion where the sound was mostly acoustic, it was refreshing. The symphony’s Trio featured extraordinary playing by the winds. (Mr. McGegan gave them a special bow at performance end.)

Stephen Rose, the orchestra’s principal second violin, was the soloist in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041. Nicholas McGegan has been in the forefront of the historically informed performance practice movement, but going beyond specialist period instrument orchestras, he regularly conducts orchestras of modern instruments. This performance was an excellent example of that work; this was a “modern-informed” reading, and in its own context it was convincing. Mr. Rose’s playing style employed vibrato more freely than would be used on a period instrument with gut strings; for example, in the third movement, several dissonances make a striking impression if performed more as ornaments that begin without vibrato and then resolve to the next harmony. Mr. Rose’s more modern approach downplayed these harmonic features but did not detract from his overall performance in the context of the modern orchestra.

After intermission the Blossom Festival Chorus was featured in two of the four “Coronation Anthems,” written by George Frideric Handel for the coronation of King George II in 1727. Each is taken from a biblical text related to various parts of the coronation ceremony. The text for No. 1, Zadok the Priest (performed here as the concert closer) is from 1 Kings 1:38-40 about the biblical account of the anointing of Solomon by Zadok and Nathan and the people’s rejoicing at this event. Handel’s setting has been used at every coronation since 1727. It is the briefest of the four anthems, lasting just over five minutes in three short sections, ending in rousing shouts of “God save the King!”

The Blossom Festival Chorus, prepared by Cleveland Orchestra Assistant Chorus Director Lisa Wong, gave an enthusiastic performance. The orchestra begins Zadok with quietly pulsing string arpeggios, leading to the chorus’s fortissimo entrance of the words, “Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King.” It was thrilling.

Opening the second half of the program, the chorus sang the third of the anthems, The King Shall Rejoice, based on on Psalm 21: 1-3, 5. It is a more extended work in four movements in a variety of moods, ending with a big “Alleluia” fugue. Again, the chorus was heard to much better advantage than they had been earlier in the summer season in the orchestra’s show tune concert.

In between the two Handel choral works the orchestra played Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major, Op 3, No. 2. In the concerto grosso form, there is no single soloist, but multiple soloists (or groups of instruments) are concerted against the main orchestra. The orchestra’s principal players had their chance to shine. The performance showed many examples of well-thought out phrasing. Nothing was overstated; everything was tidily in its musical place.

Except for the big oratorios Elijah and St. Paul, Felix Mendelssohn’s choral works are more or less forgotten, except by church choirs. The orchestra and chorus gave the audience the opportunity to hear two of these gems in lovely performances. (These works are generally performed with organ, so hearing the orchestral accompaniments was a special treat.) The 1831 Verleih’ uns Frieden (Grant Us Peace) opens with an introduction for the violas, cellos and double basses, who accompany the first choral stanza sung by men in unison. The women join on the second stanza, and for the first time in the concert we heard the sound of the clarinet in the orchestra. Not until the third stanza did the violins join the ensemble. The piece ends quietly, again with the mellow low strings.

Hear My Prayer is a short cantata for solo soprano and chorus. The soloist, Teresa Wakim, is enjoying a rising career; this was her Cleveland Orchestra debut. She is an alumna of Oberlin College Conservatory and will return to Severance Hall during the coming season. Her fresh voice and melting phrasing were among the highlights of this concert. The soprano soloist alternates with the chorus. The text of this sacred work is non-biblical, written by the same English writer, William Bartholomew, who composed the libretto for Elijah. The second section of the piece sets the beautiful “O for the wings, for the wings of a dove! Far away, far away would I rove! In the wilderness build me a nest, and remain there for ever at rest.” (The program booklet for the evening did not supply either texts or translations for any of the choral works.) The work ends in serene repose. At the curtain call Ms. Wakim used a very stagy fake curtsy more suitable had it followed a performance of an opera. It seemed silly; a simple bow would have sufficed here.

This concert proved that bombast is not a necessary element of Blossom. Thanks to Nicholas McGegan and the assembled forces, the quiet moments were among those that one carried away in memory.