Maestro Nicholas McGegan provided a provocative spoken introduction to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks on Saturday, in keeping with his all-around technique of exciting and interesting approaches. Explaining that the piece, written to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748, was performed on a rainy night and that the fireworks of the title were mistakenly lit from both ends, McGegan expressed delight. He asked the audience, warm and cozy in the confines of Santa Barbara’s First Presbyterian Church, to imagine the thousands of drenched spectators as they listened to a giant orchestra, which included 26 oboes and special drums borrowed for the occasion from the Tower of London. This striking image of the work’s original performance made a wonderful lead-in to the Academy Chamber Orchestra’s energetic and playful account of the piece. As the trumpets and kettledrums carried the overture, McGegan pushed along at a steady tempo, only to release into the second section bourrée with a kind of podium dance of his own, swaying back and forth with the music as he urged the young woodwind players along.
Before it, though, McGegan led the orchestra through Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major, BWV 1046. Coming first in the sequence of the famous Brandenburgs, No. 1 ought to be the most memorable one. But instead it’s the biggest, in terms of orchestration, and perhaps the most broad, in the sense that the mood shift between the second movement, adagio, and the third, allegro, is dramatic. The orchestra’s performance, as with all the pieces on this program, were met with roars of approval from the remarkably demonstrative audience.
After the interval, the orchestra returned for a romp through Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, during which McGegan politely asked the crowd’s permission to conduct in his shirtsleeves, explaining, “This is a high-energy piece.” And, with no disrespect to either Bach or Handel, it must be said that Beethoven carried the day, demonstrating within the first five minutes of the piece why he remains the supreme composer of the classical era.