There might be a shiver of fear in some quarters when the listener is confronted with the name Nicholas McGegan. Mercilessly rushed tempi, slipshod ensemble—and the wool-on-chalkboard horror of vibratoless strings. Fortunately for his Hollywood Bowl audience last night, McGegan proved to be a genial, good-humored guide through the music of Franz Josef Haydn—and the antithesis to the period performance stereotype.

Alison Balsom © Mat Hennek and EMI Classics
Alison Balsom
© Mat Hennek and EMI Classics

He does, as expected, favor lean textures and sprightly tempi. Though unlike many of his inflexible colleagues, he is unwilling to sacrifice musical beauty for the sake of ideological dogma. Everything sounds natural; every part tells. And throughout is music-making shot through with a radiant affirmation of life.

The way McGegan shaped Haydn’s Symphony No. 30 “Alleluia” and Symphony No. 103 “Drumroll” evinced a deep sympathy and love for the music. In his hands the scent of the Serbian countryside of Haydn’s youth was never far away. The earthy, peasant humor of his music was given full voice, with the gurgling clarinets in the trio of the “Drumroll’s” scherzo providing one of the many indications of the conductor’s deep love and sympathy for this music.

There is about McGegan something Beecham-like in his ability to give his orchestra’s front-desk players a sense of freedom that allows them to be themselves. The sonorities of the orchestra’s wind players—especially in their rendition of Haydn’s Windsor Castle Overture—resembled characters contentedly pattering away in a wordless opera buffa ensemble piece.

Flautist Demarre McGill made his debut with the orchestra in his turn as principal flautist. The work of former principal Donald Buck was much missed in the weeks after his leave for the Detroit Symphony. But McGill is every bit his equal; delivering rapt playing rich in expressive detail.

Just as successful and of like-mind was trumpet soloist Alison Balsom. Her playing was tight; rhythmically clean in Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. She doesn’t have lush tone. But she does possess a remarkable agility and fluidity of playing. She glided across the composer’s scales and intricate passagework with the sureness of foot of an Olympic gymnast; scaling with ease the composer’s tendency to push the trumpet into stratospheric range.

Her encore offered a brief respite from rococo Vienna, courtesy of 20th century Buenos Aires—Ástor Piazzolla’s Libertango. Again, her nimble technique was a marvel to listen to. Piazzolla’s music, on the other hand, paled considerably next to Haydn. Despite the effectiveness of its arrangement as a virtuoso vehicle for Balsom, the piece was drowning in tired clichés and banal phrases, like the kind of material one would imagine getting cut from a second-rate film score. McGegan was as comfortable here as he was with Haydn, drawing from the orchestra biting phrasing and rhythmic verve.

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