The Cleveland Orchestra’s summer season at the Blossom Music Center is winding down, and Saturday’s cool evening seems to have prompted a large audience, with blankets and people spread as far as the eye could see on the steep hill that surrounds the Blossom Pavilion. The evening’s conductor Nicholas McGegan, with a greatly reduced orchestra, presented works spanning the 40 years encompassing the transition from Baroque to Classical periods. It turned out to be a delightful and musically satisfying evening.

Nicholas McGegan
Nicholas McGegan
Although British conductor Nicholas McGegan has been for decades the conductor of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, he has had a parallel career of conducting major symphony orchestras, often in Baroque works. In this concert he confronted head-on the challenges of such an endeavor: the instruments and performing techniques used in modern orchestras are evolved from those that would have been used in the 18th century. To try to replicate the sound would be frustrating and pointless.

McGegan took a pragmatic approach with the Cleveland players. String players reduced the amount of vibrato to create something akin to the “straight” sound often employed by early music performers. The rhythms (for example in the opening Ouverture of J.S. Bach’s Suite no. 3 in D major, BWV1068) were played precisely in rhythm, without the more marked “double-dotting” that would have been common in early performances. Ornamentation was tasteful, but minimal. Two oboes were not enough to balance the modern string section, even at its smaller size, and the trumpets blazing brilliance overpowered the ensemble when they were playing. Despite these quibbles, the performance of Bach’s suite was lively, attentive to lightness of texture, with sensitive phrasing. The second movement “Air” (the so-called “Air on the G string”) was especially beautiful, with a seemingly paradoxical sense of suspended time but yet an ongoing underlying pulse.

Nicholas McGegan did not use a baton when conducting; he used gestures that captured the phrasing and dynamics of the music at any given moment. He directed entrances to keep things orderly, but he seemingly infused his whole body with the music as an almost choreographed musical whole.

Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb:1, long thought to be lost, was discovered in 1961 in a set of parts in Prague. Musicologists estimate that the work was composed in the 1760s, when Haydn was in his 30s. The music bridges both Baroque musical gestures and the newly emerging Classical style. The Cleveland Orchestra’s principal cellist Mark Kosower and Nicholas McGegan were an excellent match for this landmark of the cello concerto repertoire. Kosower played with agility and grace, his tone matching that of the transparency of the orchestral accompaniment. Kosower fearlessly dispatched the concerto’s many technical challenges, especially the third movement’s overtly virtuosic streams of scales. His sense of phrasing was assured, responsive to the interplay between solo and orchestra. The first movement’s extended cadenza was rhapsodic and improvisatory, with its development of the movement’s themes. The graceful second movement was for me the highlight of the evening in its tender lyricism.

Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of Johann Sebastian, made his name in London, after leaving Germany and spending a sojourn in Italy to take up composing Italian opera. The Sinfonia in G minor, Op.6, no. 6, was composed in London in the early-to-mid 1760s, contemporaneous with Haydn’s Cello Concerto. The three-movement Sinfonia is a representative work of the transition from Baroque to Classical style, with its Baroque pulse and minimal thematic development (the classical sonata allegro form was in its infancy) and the inclusion of a continuo part (a harpsichord fleshing out the harmonies of the bass line). This was the first Cleveland Orchestra performance of the Sinfonia, and it proved to be a charming piece, well-suited to the orchestra’s sound. The first movement had an air of gravity and solemnity, despite the Allegro tempo marking. The second movement was a melodic joy, while the third movement was stormy, emphasizing the dramatic use of crescendo and diminuendo. Nicholas McGegan and the orchestra made a strong case for the resurrection of the others in the set.

The Cleveland Orchestra has rarely performed Mozart’s Symphony no. 31 in D major, “Paris”, which is curious, given the emphasis that has been given to Mozart’s works by TCO over its history. Composed in 1778, it is an attractive work, with its opening dramatic punctuations and upward scalar thrusts. McGegan adopted a brisk, but not breakneck, tempo in this performance. The phrasing for the second movement Andante was limpid, with a song-like character. The third movement started very softly, then suddenly the dynamic became loud; later Mozart uses fugue-like passages to bring the symphony to a rousing close.

***11