Known far and wide as a baroque and classical master, Nicholas McGegan instead came to Ambassador Auditorium on Saturday afternoon to try his hand at Mahler for the first time with the Pasadena Symphony.
Don’t be too surprised. Fellow “specialist” Roger Norrington also conducts Mahler. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts Bruckner. Christopher Hogwood does Stravinsky. They refuse to be confined to their pigeonholes, so why should McGegan?
In any case, Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was the perfect choice for McGegan. It is the lightest, most chamber-like of the 10 symphonies and also the most suited for his cheerful musical personality. And he did some wonderful things with it — overall, the freshest live performance I’ve heard of this in some time.
McGegan brought his period-performance experience to play by observing Mahler’s meticulous instructions (which many don’t). He gave the opening movement a lively, happy buoyancy, moving headlong through the second movement, no self-conscious lingering in either.
Perhaps McGegan didn’t have quite as compelling a grip on the third movement; it was lovely, songful, but these still waters should run deep, and one couldn’t sense the depths here. The finale was quick with a touch of mischief but also very beautiful and moving — and soprano Yulia Van Doren had just the right angelic vocal weight.
Starting out on home turf, McGegan turned in a warm, mellow — perhaps a bit too mellow in spots — accompaniment to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, every turn of phrase carefully shaped, with smoothly articulating PSO principal clarinetist Donald Foster fitting right into the pocket.The Mahler performance was dedicated to the memory of the PSO’s highly respected artistic advisor James DePreist, who died on Friday.
Sadly, this was the PSO’s second loss of a conductor in the last six months, the other being Marvin Hamlisch, who led the Pasadena Pops.
Yet the orchestra got a superb candidate as a possible permanent music director in McGegan — and he’s coming back for another look next season.