Nicholas McGegan, universally known as “Nic,” is one of the most delightful conductors ever to grace a podium. He’ll be in town next weekend for an all-Mozart program with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra — and at the Sheldon Concert Hall, where he’ll lead the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis in a concert called “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it.”
McGegan, who started his career as an early-music instrumentalist and became one of the world’s most celebrated Baroque and classical conductors, has a long history in St. Louis. He was named artist-in-residence at Washington University in 1979, for what was supposed to be one semester; that continued into the mid-1980s. He’s a favorite in his appearances with the SLSO.
McGegan will be leading concerts at Powell Hall on Friday and Oct. 8. The orchestra, he says, requested the all-Mozart program. “My job is to decide what to do,” he says.
He decided to do three pieces that the orchestra hasn’t done in a while, starting with the Symphony No. 31 in D major, “Paris” (not heard here in a decade), the Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major (last performed in 1995) and the Serenade No. 9 in D major, the “Posthorn” (which got its most recent hearing in 1997).
He chose violinist Jennifer Koh as soloist for the concerto. “Mozart’s first Violin Concerto doesn’t get played very much,” McGegan says, noting that he recently recorded it, “so it’s right on top of my pile of lovely pieces right now.”
He’s enthusiastic about Koh’s playing. “Jenny and I have worked all over the country, doing Vivaldi and Beethoven. There are these pianists and violinist now who don’t just play the standard concertos. They’ve got really inquiring minds, and they go out and create new music.”
He wanted to do the “Posthorn,” he says, “because the symphony hasn’t done it in a very, very long time, not in this century. You’ve got a spectacular (principal) trumpeter, and it seemed too good to miss to have her play the posthorn bit. It’s a glorious piece, tremendous fun and a nice bit of theater.”
It also has movements “where the wind soloists really get to strut their stuff — two flutes, two oboes and a couple of bassoons. That means that they all get a chance to have mini-concertos, and that can only be done by a wind section that is absolutely spiffy and virtuosic,” like the SLSO’s.
McGegan’s particularly fond of the Symphony No. 31 and conducts it often. “The ‘Paris’ Symphony is a terrific piece of Mozart,” he says. “It’s nice and short, which is always good. It’s a piece about which we know quite a lot, because Mozart wrote letters home, about the composition of it.
“So we know, for example, that the audience clapped during the piece. It’s like ice dancing; if they like something, they applaud it. Mozart said something like, ‘Well, I wrote a particular bit in the middle of the first movement, which I knew the audience would like and would applaud, and they did.’ Nowadays, if anyone made the slightest peep — of course, that doesn’t include coughing — people would get all huffy. But in those days, they clapped, and that seemed to be fine.”
McGegan is a regular with the Chamber Music Society, which he enjoys. “I get to sit down and play chamber music with the symphony players.”
The program is bracketed with a pair of works by J.S. Bach, the Harpsichord Concerto in A major and the Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor. In between come pieces by Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Rameau and Boyce.
This year is McGegan’s 30th anniversary of performing with the SLSO, which he began at Christmas 1986, conducting Handel’s “Messiah” for the first time. “It’s a performance that I’ve never forgotten,” he says.
He’s been here virtually every season since.
“I think that’s a pretty good track record,” he says. “And when I come back, it’s always like coming home.”
What St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: All-Mozart • When 10:30 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Oct. 8 • Where Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard • How much $25-$111 • More info 314-534-1700; stlsymphony.org
What Chamber Music Society of St. Louis: “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it” • When 7:30 p.m. Friday • Where Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard • How much $19 • More info 314-941-6309; chambermusicstl.org