Review: Academy Festival Orchestra at First Presbyterian Church

Nicholas McGegan Conducted Works by Rameau, Vivaldi, and Haydn

Word has gotten out about these annual concerts led by Nicholas McGegan, the music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and one of the world’s most sought-after conductors of early music. They are held at the First Presbyterian Church on Constance and State to accommodate the opera’s Fiesta weekend run at the Granada, and the pews were completely full for this edition, which featured music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, Antonio Vivaldi, and Franz Joseph Haydn. McGegan does many things well, but he has a particular strength when it comes to combing the archive for interesting music and creating coherent sequences of excerpts from long and mostly long-forgotten 18th-century operas. Saturday’s concert began with one of these McGegan specials, a 30-minute suite of dances culled from the four-hour Rameau opera Platée. Once again the maestro struck gold, unearthing 10 fascinating and soulful sections filled with surprises. The story of Platée concerns the wedding of an ugly frog princess, and amid the tumult of tambourines and assorted percussion — including a thunder sheet — there emerged what McGegan characterized as “a Macarena for frogs.”

Next up were two gorgeous concerti by Vivaldi, with outstanding solos by concertmaster Yi Zhao and her echo violin, Seo Hee Min on the Concerto in A Major for Violin and Echo, RV 552, and Chelsea Starbuck Smith on the Concerto in G Minor for Violin, 2 Oboes, and 2 Bassoons, RV 577. Awestruck by all this early beauty, the audience hung on through a long first half and returned eager for the splendid finale, the Symphony No. 100 in G Major, “Military” of Franz Joseph Haydn.

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