Eugene Symphony is sticking with the classics for its Jan. 19 concert.
The orchestra takes on some of the biggest names of the Classical era, a timespan that runs loosely from 1750 to 1820, and to do so they’ve enlisted Nic McGegan, who’ll direct the Eugene Symphony 7:30 pm Thursday, Jan. 19. McGegan has been called one of the finest early music conductors by The New Yorker and is a Grammy-nominated conductor who specializes in the Classical and Baroque musical eras.
The Eugene Symphony concert features two pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an underplayed operatic work by Joseph Haydn and a symphony by female composer Marianna Martines.
McGegan was trained in the early music movement, where he says he studied how music was performed with 18th century instruments. Music has changed quite a bit from that time. For one, orchestras play at a higher pitch than during the Classical era (430 hertz then compared to 440 hertz today). Modern instruments are also built to handle larger venues, he says, pointing to the flute being made of metal rather than wood, allowing it to play louder.
Going back to how this music was actually performed sometimes means tracking down students of composers such as Mozart, to find their notes on manuscripts and undo some flabby additions by music directors hundreds of years ago. “One of the things of what you might call the early music movement is to take these composers to Jenny Craig and to sort of slim them down a bit to how they were done in the 18th century,” he says.
McGegan knows the Classical and Baroque periods well, but he says that Jan. 19’s performance includes Martines, a woman whose work he — and much of the Classical music world — has recently discovered.
As a composer, McGegan says Martines had a strong personality with her style. “She doesn’t sort of wander off into bits that you wish maybe had ended up on the cutting room floor,” he says. “And there are some composers of that period who are a little prolix like that,” he says of some tediously long writers of music, and you’d wish they’d trim their ideas a little.
One of those wandering composers is definitely not Haydn, McGegan says.
The Jan. 19 concert features the overture to Haydn’s opera The Desert Island. Most people who know of Haydn’s work may think of his numerous symphonies, but McGegan says the composer wrote many operas while working as kapellmeister for Prince Nikolaus of Hungary. One of those operas was The Desert Island, which McGegan says was similar to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The Desert Island has a happy ending, McGegan says, but it’s a stormy piece, filled with loss and sadness at the start. “There’s a particular German school of composition called Sturm und Drang, which means storm and stress, and that’s very much what this is a part of,” he says. “It’s not your happy Papa Haydn. It’s much more serious.”
The dark overture to The Desert Island plays a foil for the headlining work, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, McGegan says, which he paints as a sunny piece in comparison.
Also known as the Jupiter Symphony, the piece was written shortly before Mozart’s death in 1791. McGegan says Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony is one of the greatest symphonies written during the 18th century. “It’s magisterial,” he says. “It’s a virtuoso piece and hard to play. Back in the 18th century, their jaws must’ve dropped. It’s more elaborate and thought out than any other of Mozart’s pieces. It’s a work of genius.”
What makes the Jupiter Symphony remarkable is its use of counterpoint, two or more independent melodies played at the same time, in the fourth and final movement, McGegan says. For about 50 years in the 18th century, the master of counterpoint, Johann Sebastian Bach, had fallen out of style, but Mozart and his peers worked to resurrect the Baroque composer. “There was a movement against it in the Classical period,” he says. “What Mozart is doing is reintroducing counterpoint.”
The third movement of the symphony, written in the minuet dance form, is best summarized by McGegan as “beery.” “It’s something that you could almost hear in a pub, which must’ve rather shocked the 18th century, of course,” he says. But then again, he adds, a lot of concert halls at that time were also restaurants, so maybe those patrons weren’t too shocked. ν
The Eugene Symphony performs Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and more 7:30 pm Thursday, Jan. 19, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, visit EugeneSymphony.org.