Nicholas McGegan had been called on by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in recent years mostly to provide some bracing baroque or classical-era relief to the steady diet of Romantic and 20th century standards at the Hollywood Bowl. On Thursday night, he migrated to Walt Disney Concert Hall to inject some J.S. Bach and Haydn, with a Schubert chaser.
The program came with the slogan "From Bach to Schubert," purporting to show the progression from Bach's culmination of the baroque era through Haydn's embodiment of the classical era to the teenaged Schubert's post-classical symphonic bent. Thursday also happened to be the birthdays of Haydn and — according to one calendar — Bach, yet that celebratory coincidence went unmentioned.
Bach performances at the Philharmonic go back a long way. One of the pieces on Thursday's program, the Concerto for Two Violins, was first done here under Walter Henry Rothwell in 1923, not long after the orchestra was founded, and the Orchestral Suite No. 3 was first led by Pierre Monteux in 1935. Now, after a long period of being claimed as exclusive property by the period-performance cartel, it looks as if Bach is on his way to retaking his rightful place on mainstream symphonic programs, though I can almost guarantee that these pieces sound very different now than they would have 80 years ago.
In the Suite No. 3, McGegan brought period-performance leanings into play by having the strings playing with little or no vibrato, with ornaments galore for everyone, but he left room for considerable expression in the "Air on the G String." Last May, Gustavo Dudamel reportedly tried similar ideas when he conducted the Suite No. 3, so it's becoming standard procedure for the Phil in this piece, at least.
From the Double Concerto onward, though, the strings returned to using vibrato, and the orchestra sounded more unified and comfortable as the period-performance trappings fell away. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and first associate concertmaster Nathan Cole were in the spotlight in the Double Concerto; Chalifour played with incisive virtuosity and Cole offered more expression and dynamic contrast.
As a built-in encore, McGegan and Chalifour brought out something that the Phil had never done before: a brief, exuberant, unfinished Sinfonia in D, BWV 1045, whose machine-tooled solo part sometimes seemed to flash ahead of the Bach-to-Schubert agenda all the way up to Philip Glass.
In the Haydn Sinfonia Concertante, a quartet of crack Philharmonic principals — Chalifour, oboist Ariana Ghez, bassoonist Whitney Crockett and cellist Robert deMaine — interacted and melded warmly together in front of robust backing by their colleagues with plenty of solid cello and bass textures.
As the program rolled around to Schubert's Symphony No. 3, the Phil had expanded to full classical-orchestra size, and McGegan could conjure vigorous tempos, bouncy rhythm and plenty of dash with his baton-less, wiggle-waggle conducting style. It bodes well for Dudamel's own Schubert symphony cycle here in May 2017.
L.A. Philharmonic with conductor Nicholas McGegan
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $60-$190.50 (subject to change)
Info: (323) 850-2000, laphil.com