I know, I know: Your inner Scrooge must be saying, "Messiah? That again? Sure, it's great, but I've heard it already! Can't we give Jesus something else this Christmas?" Please, quell that voice. This year the Nashville Symphony has invited one of the world's leading Handel interpreters to conduct its annual performance of the masterpiece, and he's bringing along four of his favorite singers.
Conductor Nicholas McGegan is known as a Baroque specialist. But if that conjures up visions of academic stuffiness more than dancing sugarplums, sweep those thoughts aside. Bubbly and full of brio, possessed by an infectious enthusiasm, McGegan says he can't wait to test the acoustics of the new Schermerhorn Symphony Center. He calls it one of the great concert halls in the U.S., and he speaks warmly of the Nashville Symphony's reputation. And by the way, he'd love for someone to show him the Ryman while he's here. He is a music history buff, you know.
"Flaunting scholarship is one of the more tedious pastimes," the maestro says. "I intend to have fun!"
McGegan may disdain the pomposity of the podium, but his credentials are impeccable. Since 1990, he has served as artistic director of the widely respected International Göttingen Handel Festival. The festival opened in 1920 with the first performance of any Handel opera since the composer's death, and it continues to lead in the revival and rediscovery of Handel's work. When scholars uncovered a previously unknown Gloria by Handel in 2001, McGegan conducted the world premiere at Göttingen with Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle, one of the soloists featured in this week's Nashville concerts.
McGegan's extensive CD catalog of Handel's work includes the award-winning first recording of the oratorio Susanna, which The New York Times called "a landmark, a major rehabilitation of a forgotten masterpiece." He appears on more than 100 recordings of Baroque- and Classical-era music, many of them with the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, which he has directed since 1985. His other long-term associations include the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and he appears regularly as a guest conductor with major orchestras worldwide.
His Nashville Messiah should be a chummy affair, since the four soloists have all sung Handel with the conductor before. The Gloria mentioned above was one of Dominique Labelle's several well-received appearances at the Göttingen Festival, and she has performed with many other major conductors, from Pierre Boulez to Roger Norrington. Countertenor Daniel Taylor has sung with such early-music notables as Emma Kirkby, and he's a stellar presence on many Baroque recordings by John Eliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe and Taylor's own Theatre of Early Music. Tenor John McVeigh and baritone Philip Cutlip have both appeared at Göttingen and with major orchestras and opera companies throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Toward the beginning of his career in the 1970s, McGegan worked with Christopher Hogwood and others involved in what was then—perhaps somewhat contentiously—called the "authentic performance" movement. This trend aimed to present older music using instruments, tempos, ensemble sizes and performance styles approaching as closely as possible those used by the composers themselves.
"We had a sense that it was a slightly radical movement, and radical movements need something to be against as well as something to be for," McGegan recalls. "What we were against was a certain complacency, a one-size-fits-all approach," he explains, in which Bach, Mozart, Brahms and modern composers were all played according to late 19th century technique and sound ideals. Some musicians in this dominant tradition naturally bristled at the implication that their performances were "inauthentic," and controversy ensued.
Today, McGegan says, these matters are not so divisive. Traditional orchestras have become more flexible and sensitive to questions of historical style, and ensembles using period instruments have become more polished and more concerned with the music's feeling. He points out also that the many early-music recordings the movement spawned have helped create knowledgeable audiences who are exposed to a great deal of pre-Mozart repertoire.
As a conductor, McGegan now leads groups that use period instruments. At the same time, he also works extensively with orchestras (like Nashville's) that perform on modern instruments. So where does he ultimately stand today on "historically informed" musical practices? The maestro downplays any focus on historical accuracy for its own sake, emphasizing that musical expression of feeling is the important issue.
"We're not trying to re-create," McGegan says. "That would be like a butterfly collection. I prefer my butterflies to be alive." His Messiah "may or may not be 'historically informed' performance," he says with a hint of mischief, but he hopes "it will be joyful where it's supposed to be and tearful where it's supposed to be."
Messiah is now so reliably performed at Christmastime that it seems like some kind of unofficial liturgy. Surprisingly, it was not even written for church performance, much less for the Advent season: Handel originally presented this highly dramatic masterwork during Lent in a concert-hall setting. Today, it's an undeniable part of the American winter holiday season. If you're an aficionado of 18th century music, if you share my memories of grandmotherly exhortations to rise for a seventh-inning stretch during the "Hallelujah" chorus, or even if you just watch a lot of TV, you know at least a few bars.
And Nicholas McGegan knows it better than most of us. He has recorded the work complete with its many known variants; as he says, breezily, "This must be about my 150th Messiah." But in his case, and ours, familiarity breeds not contempt but delight.
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