Baroque music for humans at the SSO

By Gigi Yellen

“Baroque Music for Humans” was the title of the pre-concert conversation between Nicholas McGegan and the critic Bernard Jacobson. What was that supposed to mean? Who cared? Fun was the attitude of the day at this last in a three-concert series at Benaroya Hall with the renowned music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

McGegan treated the packed house to two Handel organ concerti, featuring Seattle favorite Joseph Adam (resident organist for both SSO and St. James Cathedral), a Corelli concerto grosso, and two suites—Purcell’s The Indian Queen and Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes—inspired by the antique idea of “Indian” as “exotic other.” Composed long before the days when the Western concert tradition opened itself to the rest of the world, these “inspirations” didn’t really count for much. They were theatre pieces, popular dance suites.

“So imagine the dancers,” said McGegan before the concert, but frankly, I felt a little jealous having to do that when he was having such a good time springing up and down on the podium.

Mickey Rooney came to mind as I watched McGegan’s back: he bounces, he pokes, he leaps. He flips up a palm or waves a quick wrist at the players to finish a phrase, and, charmingly, he anticipates a common quandary for Baroque music audiences.

“You don’t need to count the movements, by the way” he quipped from the podium to start things off. “I’ll give you a sign when we’re done.” And so he did: a sidelong glance, a ta-dah gesture with open arms at the end of each suite, and the audience gratefully answered with eager applause.

Pared down to a fraction of its Brucknerian self, Seattle Symphony went Baroque-size, a mere three dozen or so players, for this concert. No period instruments here, but plenty of period-style embellishments. Joseph Adam had a great time on the giant Watjen organ he knows so well. Part of the fun came from watching McGegan wait patiently down below while Adam improvised as Handel would have, but on an instrument the size of about a hundred of Handel’s.

Corelli’s D major Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 4 came alive in a jolly musical conversation between concertmaster Emma McGrath and principal 2nd violin Stephen Bryant, positioned facing each other on either side of the podium. McGegan probably egged on these two fine players, encouraging this hammy performance. At the end of the piece, instead of the traditional immediate handshake between conductor and concertmaster, he stepped back and had the two violinists shake, a delightful moment.

One of the treats of live music performance is catching one’s breath as the tempo threatens to overtake the musicians. Wondering whether a particular passage might need to be called ragged, I thought about the difference between raggedy and nubbly sweaters: the difference between shabby and comforting. There was nothing shabby in these performances, and just enough nubbly stuff to make for cozy midwinter comfort.

Oh, and that “for humans” thing? Ah, you can learn so much at a pre-concert conversation. It’s about Bach vs. Handel. McGegan (and, as it turns out, Jacobson too) prefers Handel, the secularist, by far.

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3 thoughts on “Baroque music for humans at the SSO

  1. If you’d actually come to the pre-concert discussion, you’d know why it was called “Baroque Music for Humans,” because it was explained right at the beginning.

    Regards,

    Bernard

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