The San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra may be one of the country’s leading ensembles playing music on original instruments of the Baroque period.

But when music director Nicholas McGegan mounts the podium for the orchestra’s Ambassador Auditorium performance tonight he will be, in his own words, “the least authentic part of the whole procedure.”

“Concerts back then always had an organizer, but no one with the job of waving his arms around trying to keep people together,” McGegan, 37, explained via phone from San Francisco.


“The music director, who was sometimes the composer himself--as in the case of Bach and Handel--would lead from the instrument he played. A harpsichordist would conduct from his seat. In fact, I normally do conduct from the harpsichord.”

The British-born, Oxford and Cambridge-trained conductor has been the 5-year-old ensemble’s music director since September, 1985. He had been teaching at St. Louis’ Washington University and was recruited for the post after guest conducting a concert celebrating Handel’s 300th birthday.

“Performing this music on period instruments is quite different than performing with a modern symphony orchestra,” he noted.

“The flutes are quieter, oboes a little more rustic, the strings sound steelier and thinner than the creamy modern sound. With modern instruments, the style is much less free and sometimes the approach is rather pious.

“That has to do with the way the music is taught: sort of like grits--it’s good for you, but . . .

“Actually, the music is quite exciting. Because it’s so elegant, has that periwigged image, people tend to forget it’s concerned with real feelings. But once one strips away that frippery and sees what the composer was trying to say, you find that it speaks directly to the heart.”

Most of the orchestra’s string instruments were made during the 18th Century, with the winds a mixture of genuine Baroque creations and copies. But it is the players who make the difference between a period and modern sound, McGegan said.

“After all, it’s the people who control the instruments, not the other way around,” he pointed out.

“Depending on the concert, we have 20 to 25 players. They’ve studied this style for years, know it thoroughly. Some have even made their own instruments: they’ve gotten their own lathes and taken the trouble to learn about wood.”

The musicians perform programs that, McGegan said, could conceivably have been heard by concertgoers of the time. The Ambassador concert features “incredibly unknown and incredibly enjoyable” selections by Rebel, Rameau and Geminiani that were composed within 17 years of each other.

“It’s become fashionable for orchestras to put a Haydn symphony together with Boulez or even worse, with Mahler. I like to do pieces that are totally disparate, have a certain theme. Except for one overture, the Ambassador program is all music written for the Paris Opera’s ballet company. I also tend to organize programs by countries, as there was a strong sense of nationalism then.

“Programming this way gets the audience a little further into the music, into the world of that epoch,” he added.

“It’s nice, too, if one actually reads the program notes and gets a feel of what it would have been like to have been in that time.”

McGegan’s role is “not to dance pirouettes in front of the orchestra, and not to give them the beat--they can get that quite well on their own--but to check the balances, shape phrases and act as a focus while they’re playing.

“Sometimes I don’t have to conduct at all. Sometimes my style is quite flamboyant, though I hope not narcissistic.”

The Philharmonia’s schedule annually encompasses four to five months of Bay Area performing, touring, recording and opera engagements, among them last year’s L.A. Music Center Opera production of Handel’s “Alcina.” The orchestra is McGegan’s first priority.

“I’m of the old-fashioned school,” he said, “that believes a conductor should be with his orchestra as much as possible, rather than on a plane flitting from one band to another.”

About half his remaining time is spent conducting opera, including the coming Long Beach Opera production of “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” by Monteverdi.

He also takes “free-lance fun jobs,” such as conducting the “Brandenburg” Concertos with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra this December and serving as guest musical director of the Ojai Festival next spring.

“I’m eclectic,” he remarked. “I don’t love just Baroque music. But with the Philharmonia you can change things a bit, have fun, whereas opera is big and formal and stately.”

The conductor brings some of that sense of fun to the concert hall, as witness the programs where his musicians play standing up.

“Certain numbers, like Vivaldi concertos, are easier to play that way,” he maintained.

“And besides,” he said with a laugh, “when we’re wearing tails, it looks so nice.”