When the Santa Barbara Symphony returns for their first fully orchestral concert of the season this Saturday and Sunday, November 13 and 14, the audience will experience the pleasure of being in the right place at the right time. In this case, the right place is the Granada, and the right time is the 18th century. Led by guest conductor Nicholas McGegan, music director laureate of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, the Symphony will perform a lively program of great baroque music, including George Frideric Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. This suite has passed two challenging tests: the test of time and being heard over the sound of explosions.
Speaking with McGegan by phone last week, I learned that, in addition to celebrating our community’s ongoing return to live performances, this Royal Fireworks program offers yet another reason to be festive. This year is the 300th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, No. 4 of which is on the program. For Bach lovers, the opportunity to hear any of these immortal works can’t be missed, especially when maestro McGegan leads the band.
The other two compositions on the bill, while less well-known, deserve close attention. McGegan has done an extraordinary service to the music world through his scholarly and artistic devotion to the vast corpus of baroque opera, so no concert of his would be complete without an example of this work. Naïs, by Jean-Philippe Rameau, was written to commemorate the same historical event as Handel’s Royal Fireworks — the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle — and premiered in Paris just five days before the skyrockets went off in London in April of 1749. The Santa Barbara Symphony audience will hear dances excerpted from this work and annotated for the ensemble by McGegan. “Anything French meant a grand scale,” the maestro told me. “The Paris Opera orchestra was at least 50 musicians.”
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This makes the excerpts from Naïs particularly well-suited to the scale of a modern orchestra. Santa Barbara Symphony violist Erik Rynearson will be featured in the fourth work, the Viola Concerto in G Major of Georg Philipp Telemann. It’s the first known concerto for the viola, and Telemann finished it in the same year as Bach completed the Brandenburgs — 1721.
For Rynearson and all of the musicians in the Santa Barbara Symphony, the opportunity to work with maestro McGegan represents another aspect of what makes playing in the Santa Barbara Symphony special. Beyond being the foremost exponent of this baroque period — no small feat in an era of burgeoning interest in early music — McGegan carries himself with primal gusto. He “loves having a good time onstage,” as he puts it, and is adamant when it comes to spreading the word that this repertoire is “joyous stuff.” He thinks it is “great that baroque music is being played by big symphony orchestras,” rather than being restricted to chamber orchestras and period instruments. Arriving as he does with his own carefully prepared scores, McGegan proceeds to rehearse the musicians with the attitude that this repertoire is there for them to “have fun, not go back to conservatory.” Although some of the works from before 1760, which he advocates for with such passion, may be unfamiliar, he promises that it is not necessary for the players to “wear wigs” to perform them well.
The Santa Barbara Symphony will play the Royal Fireworks program on Saturday, November 13, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, November 14, at 3 p.m. For tickets and information, visit thesymphony.org or call the Granada box office at (805) 899-2222.