Nicholas McGegan, the effervescent maven of 18th century music, has been making a point to play against type in Southern California this year – a Mahler Fourth Symphony in Pasadena in February, an all-Mendelssohn program at the Hollywood Bowl last month. There will presumably be many such excursions to come after he becomes the Pasadena Symphony’s principal guest conductor this fall.
Yet in his return to the Bowl Tuesday night with a chamber-sized edition of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, McGegan went back to his usual turf with nothing but Mozart in the first half and relatively early Beethoven in the second.
It was not an optimum outing for this conductor at first. The Philharmonic seemed to be struggling with the end-of-summer doldrums, and the weather at the start of the evening – hot and humid – was uncooperative. One wonders whether these conditions contributed to the draggy, un-McGegan-like rendition of the Overture to Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.”
The thick-set, heavy feeling in the opening movement of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat, K. 364, could be justified by the tempo marking – it does say Allegro maestoso – and the finale rolled by at something resembling a brisk McGegan clip. Violinist Nathan Cole and violist Carrie Dennis were an oddly matched pair – Cole straight-ahead and crisp, Dennis more emotive, more willing to pull the phrases around.
Meanwhile, those controversial video screens made their own distracting point; Dennis’ dress looked yellow in person and pink on the screens. To paraphrase the old saw, who are you gonna believe, the camera or your own lying eyes?
After intermission, though, the weather cooled down and the music-making heated up. First, there was the pleasure of hearing McGegan toy with Beethoven’s rarely played Contredanses WoO 14 – 12 short, sharp, lively chips from the workbench, the seventh of which produced a whiff of recognition as the famous “Eroica” theme that Beethoven loved to recycle.
Then came Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 – and by the onset of the second movement, McGegan was fully back in gear, encouraging call-and-response dialogues that gave the music life, leading bouncy, invigorating third and fourth movements that hummed right along.
And 8,883 listeners – pretty good for a Tuesday night – heard it.