British harpsichordist, flautist, conductor Nic McGegan is known as an early music expert, focusing on the 18th century. While teaching music at King’s College, Cambridge, Oriel College, Oxford, and the Royal College of Music, since 1985 he was also a music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Over his career, McGegan had made more than 100 recordings for such labels as Philharmonia Baroque Productions and he was nominated for a Grammy Award for one of his CDs in the year 2011. It came by surprise when in October 2018, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra announced that McGegan is to stand down as its music director and the season of the year 2019-2020 was his last. Living in a period of change, Nic McGegan shares details about his childhood in an artistic environment, ever-changing conducting style, and his valuable communication with musicians.
This is your final season as Music Director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale. How the decision to leave came about? What do you value the most in your 34 years of experience with this institution?
I have spent about half my life as Music Director of Philharmonia. The chorale and orchestra are an incredible bunch of musicians and some have been in the group longer than I. Over the years we’ve greatly expanded our repertoire and have been able to do large score projects, including operas. Now that I am stepping back, I am looking forward to time simply making music rather than attending board meetings, raising money, or holding auditions. I have no intentions of retiring merely leaving the business of music to others.
Your approach is being described as intelligent, infused with joy and never dogmatic. Why do you choose to present these qualities in your approach?
I hope that I am always learning and I frequently change my mind about the music that I interpret. If you are dogmatic, you have closed the doors on learning anything new. Music gives me so much pleasure and joy, so if that comes across in what I do then I am truly delighted. ‘Intelligent??’ I never thought of myself as being an egghead.
What did you learn from your teachers? Maybe they have shared some wisdom which is guiding you even today?
I never had an actual conducting lesson in the formal sense. At University, I only did the more academic side of music: theory, composition. and history. However, there was plenty of opportunity for performance. I played flute in the university orchestra, and, also played chamber music on the piano and harpsichord. In my second year I conducted the university’s second orchestra and in my final year I directed the main university orchestra, the chamber orchestra, and the opera group.
Of course, I learned so much from my colleagues and from the conductors under whom I worked. These include Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington.
While I was at Cambridge, I started to play the baroque flute and met Mr. Hogwood there too.
As they say ‘every little helps’, so I can proudly say that I learnt so much from many different people each of whom has had wisdom to offer. I hope too that I am still learning and will continue to do so until my last breath. Nowadays, I can say that I also learn a lot from my students. They ask such great questions and make me reconsider every idea I’ve ever had.
You had worked in various orchestras around the world. Was there a performance that meant to you the most?
When I was a student, I was lucky enough to play first flute in an orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten. He may not have been the most accomplished conductor in the world but he was certainly one of the finest musicians I’ve ever met. He was so inspiring, kind and supportive. His interpretation of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius was something I will never forget.
You have toured and performed in different countries. Could you compare the different cultures?
Music making is very different in Europe compared to North America. To begin with, European governments still believe in supporting the arts whereas in the USA, at least, nearly all arts’ support is private with almost nothing from the government, which is more interested in paying for lots of guns and battleships rather than concerts or even arts education.
You are called “an expert in 18th century style”. How important in your opinion the correct stylistical interpretation and historically informed performance has on the quality performance of music?
I feel that knowledge of period style is very, very important but one must never forget that when we give a concert, we are performing for a modern day audience who we hope will be moved and delighted by what we do rather than be impressed by how stylistically ‘correct’ it might. Stylistic knowledge for me is a bit like getting the words of a play in the right order. It is where you start rather than a goal in its own right. A thorough knowledge of the text is merely the springboard for a great performance.
What does the role of artistic director at the Göttingen Handel Festival mean to you? How did you started to work with the festival? What pulled you towards it?
I first visited Göttingen in 1980 as a flute player in John Eliot Gardiner’s orchestra and then I conducted several performances there later in the decade, including Handel’s Floridante and Il Pastor Fido. I suppose that I was being groomed to succeed John Eliot when he decided to leave in 1990.
You have released more than 100 discs. How did they show the growth of you as a conductor?
I hope that CDs show my development as a musician. Sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to record a work several times but it isn’t always the case that the later one is better.
You have won numerous awards for your creative accomplishments. What meaning does this recognition hold in your heart?
It is of course a great honour to be given awards and to receive nice comments from friends and critics. One shouldn’t let it go to one’s head though.
Both of your parents were artists and wish that you were a painter. How did your passion for music developed in such environment?
My parents gave me lots of encouragement but were not musical mentors. Neither of them played an instrument but they did enjoy music. I, on the other hand, have benefitted greatly from their love of art and architecture. Something for which I am eternally grateful.
You’ve mentioned that “part of the job of the conductor is to be an ideas person.” How could you describe yourself as an ideas person?
Composers in the 18th century put relatively little into their scores beyond the notes whereas later ones give much more detailed information about how they would like their pieces to be performed. Therefore, anyone interpreting earlier repertoire has to be prepared to add a lot of performing information such as dynamics, phrasing, tempos etc. This is where having a lot of ideas is truly essential.
You are a harpsichordist, flautist, conductor and early music expert. How do you balance your everyday life for all of your spheres of interest?
I no longer play the flute and I only rarely perform any solo music on the harpsichord or fortepiano. So, unlike a soloist, I don’t have to practice much. I do however spend a good deal of time thinking about music away from any particular instrument and of course I can do that anywhere: on a plane, a bus or in bed.
“Conductor has to be a communicator”. What most important thing while communicating with musicians?
Before I get to rehearsal, I always make sure that the orchestral parts are marked up with everything that I need: dynamics, expression marks, bowings etc. That means that in rehearsal I can deal only with interpreting and performing the music. When I am working, a lot depends on whether I speak the language of the country where I am giving the concert. Obviously, in the USA, UK, France or Germany, I can communicate with the musicians in their languages but in other countries I have to communicate by gesture and as few words as possible. I always try to be very, very clear!
How would you describe your conducting style?
For most of the earlier repertoire that I do, I find it more important to indicate by gesture what I want rather then simply keeping time like a band master. In more modern repertoire my technique must change to something more formal with a clearer beat. Ever so, I haven’t used a baton for nearly 25 years!
How your daily practice does look like? Do you have any rituals as a musician?
Unless I am actually playing a solo, I don’t practice the keyboard very much. But I do think about the music that I am doing a very great deal. But I don’t need a musical instrument to do that. I can work just as well in silence, even on a plane or in bed.
How did you imagined your profession at the beginning of your career? What was your motivation and aspirations? How does the reality differ?
When I was a teenager I thought that I might be a composer certainly it didn’t enter my head to become a conductor. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be a professional musician. I was rather keen on becoming an archaeologist when I was about 16.
What do you value the most in the music performance?
Communicating my love of the music directly to the listeners without trivial showmanship or pretention.
What would you name as musicians that inspired you; or pieces that introduced you to something new at the beginning of your career?
Benjamin Britten and Christopher Hogwood were great inspirations in the university years. I worked with both of them.
What kind of impact do you want to have to the listener? If you knew that you had only one last opportunity to express yourself creatively, what message would you want to convey to others?
I would always like to convey to the listener the emotions that I feel. To share my joy or sadness, according to the music. I also try to convey what I hope the composer’s emotions were too which is perhaps more important. A conductor should be a ‘translator’ or bridge from composer to the audience, from heart to heart.
How do you listen to the music of others? What are you searching for? What affects you or resonates with you the most?
I have favourite recordings that move me greatly. Sometimes they are made by my friends which deepens the experience a great deal. Sometimes of course, a performance can annoy me. Perhaps I think that something is missing or only scratches the surface of the music.
Have you ever doubted your talent? How did you work through your doubts?
I always questions the decisions that I have to make about music or indeed anything. Sometimes I realise that perhaps I am wrong but sometimes I get more convinced that perhaps my ideas might be worth something or could be developed further.
Are there any future projects that excites you the most?
These are the goals for the remainder of my time on earth:
1) To outlive Donald Trump!
2) To conduct more Mozart opera.
3) To visit Sicily.
Thank you for the conversation!