Renowned British conductor Nicholas McGegan has been the music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale for more than 30 years. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the conductor is a specialist in baroque and classical music. His service to music overseas has made him an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and this past fall, he served a residency as the Christoph Wolff Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Harvard. The Crimson sat down with McGegan before his performance conducting a program of Mozart at the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston on March 3 and 5.
The Harvard Crimson: How did you get into conducting?
Nicholas McGegan: Before I went to university in the late 60s, I went to a music school in the U.K., and I was the only one of the group who didn't play a string instrument. I played the flute. So they said that I really had nothing to do, so why don’t I conduct while they play. So I was about 17 or 18 at the time. At this point, I’ve been conducting for 50 years, which is a nice long time. I went to the University of Cambridge (the other Cambridge!) and I conducted there. I conducted all the main orchestras, the chamber orchestra, and the opera. Then I went to Oxford and did much of the same thing. That meant that I never actually studied conducting, I just did it. I didn’t go to a music college. Certainly in Cambridge in those days you didn't study any practical music. The coursework was entirely academic. But since I played the flute, I got to play in orchestras. So I got to see how other conductors worked, and I learned from them.
THC: What is it like to direct the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra? Have you enjoyed it?
NM: I mean, what’s not to like about the Bay Area? Except for perhaps the earthquakes. I absolutely love it out there. I am so lucky to have been with that orchestra for 30 years. Most conductors don't last that long with orchestras, so it has been a real treat to help mold the style and repertoire. And I’ve had a great time there. Maestros basically keep going until they fall off their perch. We don't have a retirement age. We’re supposed to be like good wine! We just get better and better with age … so I’m in my late sixties having the time of my life.
THC: What do you hope to get out of the Handel and Haydn performance?
NM: I think the great thing is that the H&H orchestra tends to play non-dramatic music. But I have come in with a program that is very much not like that. It is very dramatic ballet music. It is quite exciting. We are going in with a Mozart piece that he wrote in four days, which is actually the least wild piece of the night. Then to a ballet, then the last piece is a symphony by a Basque composer who died when he was 19. He had already written a symphony. He died of tuberculosis in Paris in 1826. That is a piece that doesn't get performed very often. Wonderful piece. And, actually, a rather miserable piece. Not surprising when you're dying at 19. One sometimes forgets that these are actual human beings writing this music, and just because they wore nice wigs or whatever that doesn’t mean they didn't have passionate beating hearts.
THC: Is there anything in particular that still gets you excited about conducting after so long?
NM: I mean, I just love music. Part of the job of the conductor is to be an idea person. And that’s fine—I hope I have lots of ideas about repertoire and how the music should be performed. A conductor also has to be a communicator. So my job is to take the music that has to be played and encourage the orchestra to play it a certain way. And of course to be a communicator with the audience. So I suppose a conductor is an interpreter, which is a grand version of the word salesman. There are other parts of the conductor’s job, particularly fundraising and all that stuff. But the music is my favorite part. Being an interpreter, a communicator, and an advocate for the music.