In what sounds like a most appropriate way for an organization with “Philharmonic” in its name to open the season, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County plans to present the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale Oct. 4 at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Under the new leadership of Tommy Phillips, the oldest classical music organization in Orange County will present some 30 concerts in its 65th season, starting with the San Francisco-based, early-music, period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque in an all-Mozart program.
Having established a reputation as America's leading early-music group, music of (mostly) the 18th and early 19th centuries being played on period instruments in accordance with performance practices of that time, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (formed 1981) and Chorale (1995) will be conducted by Nicholas McGegan (music director since 1985), one of the leading figures in the early-music movement, which dates to the 1970s, when the movement picked up steam with the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christopher Hogwood and Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
Despite having performed much of this music many times, McGegan remains enthusiastic.
“I've done 106 `Messiah’ performances, and I still don't get tired of it,” said the British conductor/harpsichordist/flutist/early-music scholar of (arguably) Handel's most famous work. “I happen to find music of the 18th and early 19th centuries thrilling. I feel I have a natural affinity with this music; whereas, for example, I don't have a natural affinity with Tchaikovsky — or any Russian or classical Chinese music. That's not to say I don't like their music, just that I don't feel natural; I don't feel it's quite me.”
McGegan said he always feels Haydn and Mozart are, indeed, “him.”
“I have cultivated an affinity with their music since 1973, when I played (Baroque) flute in (Hogwood’s) recordings of Mozart,” said McGegan, who turns 69 in January. “So I had a long time at it.”
For the Oct. 4 concert, there is still an element of newness.
“I've done 'Exultate, jubilate' 12 times with six different sopranos,” he said. "But this time, a new soprano will sing it. We've never worked together before, so that will be exciting. And while I’ve done the `Coronation’ Mass as well, I never conducted the opening work on the program, the `Litaniae Lauretanae.’ It’s new to me and I can't wait.”
McGegan believes that what makes his group stand out from other early-music groups in the country is that the musicians know each other so well.
“We still have founding members with us,” he said. “They're a very loyal group. We all think alike. And we're more individual in how we make music. It all comes down to our particular personalities. My job is to have this orchestra of individuals keep their personalities but play together. While other conductors strive to be perfect, that perfect may be perfectly dead. I prefer my perfect to be more colorful.
“The musicians know how I feel, what my particular take on a piece is; with a strange orchestra, I'll still do it the same way, but I’d have to explain it to them. With the Philharmonia, I don't.”
McGegan has plenty of time for “strange” orchestras, as the Philharmonia takes up only 14 weeks a year and his other post, principal guest conductor of the Pasadena Symphony, has him spend a couple of weeks there, leaving lots of room for him to freelance, which he does primarily by guest conducting all over the world.
And yes, those orchestras all play on modern instruments.
“When we do modern works, the early-music knowledge helps with those performances,” said McGegan, who, through the Philharmonia's program, “New Music for Old Instruments,” has commissioned composers to write for their period instruments, a combination of Baroque/Classical/early Romantic with the modern.
The Philharmonia, which recently recorded “Joseph and his Brethren,” planned for a spring 2019 release to coincide with a hoped-for performance of that Handel oratorio in Walt Disney Concert Hall, released its latest CD to date in April 2017: Rameau's opera “La Temple de la Gloire,” which also had its modern premiere that month.
“This was the first time this work had been done in this version, fully staged, since its premiere in 1745,” McGegan said. “That was a thrill there, big time: it was new for all of us!”
And that's something McGegan has to keep in mind at all times.
“There's always somebody out there in the audience for whom listening to something, no matter how familiar to us, may be absolutely new to them,” he said. “I must never forget that.”
If You Go
What: Philharmonic Society of Orange County opens its 65th season with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, Nicholas McGegan, conductor, in an all-Mozart program.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 4.
Where: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Cost: Tickets start at $38.