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Surprise disappointment at Seattle Symphony
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Surprise disappointment at Seattle Symphony

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Baroque concert with Nicholas McGegan
January 15
Benaroya Hall


Nicholas McGegan, for 20 years associated with the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, has more than 100 CD releases to date. Some of them made me eager to see this maestro in action. Appearing with a reduced Seattle Symphony (many members of which were busy at Seattle Opera), McGegan was a little bundle of good spirits and energy. He bounded onto the stage and addressed the audience in a very charming manner about a slight program re-arrangement.

The program was described as "dramatic baroque masterworks." Henry Purcell's "The Indian Queen, Suite for Orchestra" opened the evening. The 12 movements were lively and articulate. The players responded to the dancing conductor's every gesture. Clearly everyone was having a good time. Especially appealing was the movement for the wind instruments alone.

The Seattle Symphony, of course, does not use "period" instruments, but the string players used little or no vibrato, thus changing the sound of the orchestra somewhat. McGegan is no purist and feels that baroque music on modern instruments is just fine. I would have much preferred to hear these works with the more astringent sound of period instruments.

But a more damaging sonic element dampened our pleasure. Benaroya Hall is just too big to be ideal for small ensembles. Added to its lack of intimacy was the fact that the hall was more than half empty. The sound in Benaroya changes drastically when the seats are mostly empty: it becomes too resonant, with the sounds from the stage bouncing around and getting a little confused. The smaller the ensemble, the worse this effect. Perhaps those sitting up close did not suffer as much from the resulting lack of clarity.

The "Concerto grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 4" by Arcangelo Corelli brought welcome Italian warmth into the room. The delightful interplay between the strings displayed both wit and imagination, keeping the listener alert for the many surprises.

I'm saddened to report that the two Handel organ concerti were a great disappointment. Soloist Joseph Adam seemed out of his usual form. Not only were there an embarrassing number of flubbed notes, but he also used registrations that seemed inappropriate, especially in his overuse of the trumpets. The stops an organist chooses are, of course, up to the player himself. I found Adam's choices overly aggressive and loud. The concerti were, first, the "Organ Concerto in F major, Op. 4, No. 5" and second, the "Organ Concerto in B-flat major, Op. 7, No. 1."

The final work, Jean-Phillippe Rameau's "Les Indes galantes, Suite for Orchestra," kept the Indian theme from the opening piece. It also had 12 movements, one of which included a wind machine and "tom-toms"! It was called "Airs pour Z├ęphire." This was lively music, sometimes trying to evoke American Natives; but my guest and I both found it quite boring. I guess French baroque is not to everyone's taste.

We can hope that McGegan will some day bring his baroque orchestra up from San Francisco. I wouldn't want to miss that. Meanwhile, until the Seattle Symphony marketing team can fill the house for these baroque concerts with small orchestras, I think I'll take a pass and get my early music kicks from our fine Early Music Guild concerts.

Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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