It's as reliable as a sunrise: a Nicholas McGegan appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in August. The conductor was at his perennial Bowl gig again Thursday night, and as usual McGegan's agenda was locked into the 18th century — all Vivaldi this time.
Most of the Los Angeles Philharmonic had the night off, leaving a small crack division of string players, plus keyboard, oboe and baroque trumpet. The stage, though, was far from bare, with three singers, one young rising star violinist and the Pacific Chorale sharing the space with the Philharmonic from time to time.
There were Vivaldi concertos, but not the four usual ones. Instead, McGegan led off each half of the program with a violin concerto from Opus 4, No. 3 in G, and No. 4 in A minor, part of a collection of 12 gathered under the zesty title "La Stravaganza." Neither is very long, just around nine minutes each, but they do give the soloist a mini-workout.
Violinist Simone Porter sounded remarkably mature when she played the Barber concerto here three years ago, and now, at just 20, her authority and expressive range have grown even more. Refusing to accept the limitations of period performance, she played happily and gracefully with a big, plush tone and lots of dynamic contrasts and drama. McGegan and his strings accompanied briskly, with plenty of brio.
The bulk of the concert was taken up by a pair of Vivaldi sacred vocal works, the Stabat Mater to round out the first half and to finish the evening, the Gloria. The mostly dark, mostly lugubrious Stabat Mater — not exactly ideal fare for the famously easygoing, alfresco dining ambience of the Bowl — was nevertheless a grateful vehicle for the expressive, soothing, beautiful timbre of the English countertenor Tim Mead.
Mead was also featured in the uplifting Gloria, joined by a pair of contrasting sopranos, Sherezade Panthaki and Justine Aronson. At first, when paired, Aronson seemed to have a more lyrical timbre against Panthaki's mezzo-like coloring, but a later solo showcase allowed Panthaki to display her full, luxuriously toned upper range. McGegan kept things moving with his usual pep; the Pacific Chorale handled the choral stretches admirably; and the sound system peculiarities heard on Tuesday were gone. (Thursday was the first of two McGegan dates this summer — the second being at the close of the season Sept. 14.)
Incidentally, I recently listened to a 1960 aircheck of the Gloria from a departed old friend of the Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, no less, as one of the vocalists. Everything is wrong by today's period-performance standpoint, but so much else is right; the emotional and dramatic power that Giulini was able to extract from this score is staggering. Our understanding of Vivaldi has come a long way since, but I sometimes wonder whether something has been lost on the journey.
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