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Music review: Nicholas McGegan conducts the Pasadena Symphony

April 1, 2012 |  8:41 am

Pasadena Symphony Saturday
Beethoven is not a composer audiences immediately identify with early-music specialist Nicholas McGegan, especially Beethoven performed on modern instruments. But as music director of the period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco since 1985, McGegan has been updating his profile over the past few years.

Next season, he is scheduled to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with the Pasadena Symphony, but on Saturday at the Ambassador Auditorium he joined them for vigorous and finely detailed accounts of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 (K.466), featuring pianist Nareh Arghamanyan.

The 23-year-old Vienna-trained musician is already a thoughtful and effective Mozart player. Though so far she appears to favor more romantic composers such as Liszt and Rachmaninoff, her stylistic approach in Mozart valued clarity of articulation, a firm tone and emotional restraint. As a result, her reading gathered cumulative power and an even deeper emotional resonance. She was especially moving in the pensive second movement Romance.

Less reserved on the piano bench, Arghamanyan emoted like a virtuoso, arms occasionally dancing ballet-like in the air after she dispatched some tricky passage work. Beethoven wrote two cadenzas for this concerto, and the first Arghamanyan played in the opening Allegro was exceptionally lovely — idiomatic but also suggesting the ethereal late Beethoven to come. McGegan and the Pasadeneans proved agile collaborators.

After intermission, McGegan’s propulsive and lean-textured account of the “Eroica” avoided any hint of solemnity or Beethovenian pomposity. Intonation problems from the brasses in the mighty fanfares of the second movement Funeral March did not impede the exciting forward motion. McGegan and the orchestra’s rendition was perfectly paced and weighted, from the score’s two famously abrupt opening chords to its finish 45 minutes later.

The concert opened with a sprightly reading of Mendelssohn’s pictorial water-themed piece “The Fair Melusina Overture.”

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--Rick Schultz

Photo: Nicholas McGegan conducts the Pasadena Symphony. Credit: Ivan Schustak

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