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Baroque music — on saxophone? Expert on ancient music presents modern take on centuries-old works at Aspen Music Festival

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Laura Barisonzi
Conductor Nic McGegan will lead a transformational performance of Baroque music, and he'll join forces with a young violinist to present a beloved concerto.

This transcript has been edited for clarity. To hear the full broadcast version, tap the audio above.

Eleanor Bennett, host: 

Over the next few days at the Aspen Music Festival, a young violinist and a seasoned conductor will join forces to perform an energetic rendition of Mendelson — and that conductor will lead a performance of Baroque music featuring an unusual instrument.

Aspen Public Radio’s Chris Mohr spoke with violinist Randall Goosby and conductor Nic McGegan, and he brings us this report on the upcoming eclectic performances.

Mohr, narrator: The saxophone was invented 150 years after Vivaldi and Bach composed their masterpieces. But that hasn't kept saxophonists away from their music. In fact, two saxophonists will be playing Vivaldi at Nic McGegan's Baroque concert next week. McGegan is an ancient music specialist. So this is a real departure for him.

Mohr, interview: And I'm wondering what you think about taking a couple saxophones and putting them into a Vivaldi concerto when, of course, Vivaldi had never heard of the saxophone?

McGegan: I think it's terrific. Having two saxophonists is great. Great musicians make great music, regardless of what instrument they're playing. And I think the saxophones would be terrific. It’ll be a different sound, not a sound that Vivaldi necessarily had in his head. But that doesn't matter. Vivaldi himself arranged his concertos for whatever was around.

Mohr, narrator: Handel's "Water Music" is also on the program. Handel wasn't just a genius composer. He was also attuned to political happenings. He composed "Water Music" after a death in the English royal family.

Mohr, interview: Can you tell us a little bit about the story of how "Water Music" came into being? Because I think that story is a pretty interesting one.

McGegan: The Queen of England dies, and her successor is his boss from Germany. He's the one he's sort of skulked away from a little bit — not a great idea. And so Handel thought, “Maybe I better make up to this a little bit.” So if you're a king, and you had to go from one palace to another, you had a boat. And he often had a little boat behind him with an orchestra in it. And Handel wrote this lovely piece, what's known as the "Water Music," to be played in the barge behind the boat.

McGegan: It was like it had been written by John Williams for a movie. It was an instant hit.

Mohr, interview: There are less famous works that are fabulous. And I'm wondering if this last piece — this little Baroque journey around the world — is that something that you put together? And is that kind of a chance for us to hear pieces that are not, say, part of "Water Music," are not part of "The Four Seasons" or the most famous Baroque pieces?

McGegan: Absolutely. You won't need a passport to get or take a COVID test to go around the world with this little bit of the program.

Mohr, narrator: McGegan’s own collection of Baroque pieces ranges from music of the Incas and Central America pop music from Ireland and Scotland, folk tunes from Poland and even Calcutta. You might call it a Baroque diversity program. And tonight, McGegan conducts the chamber orchestra in two major works by Mendelssohn joined by the young violinist Randall Goosby.

Mohr interview: What do you love about Mendelssohn?

McGegan: He has a sound world which is just magical — and in "Midsummer Night's Dream," literally magical. He writes wonderful tunes. His music has enormous energy, definitely. This is the era before the discovery of decaf, so it is very highly caffeinated. It's often very fast and very brilliant.

Mohr, narrator: When the esteemed British Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan conducts the mostly Mendelssohn concert this evening, he will be performing with a violinist he just met this week — a young, Black American violinist, Randall Goosby, who actively promotes the music of underappreciated Black and women composers. Two things that McGegan and Goosby have in common are the challenges and rewards of traveling all over the world to perform. I asked Goosby if he enjoyed life on the road.

Goosby: Oh, that's part of what makes it a lot of fun. You know, I mean, the life of a “soloist” can be lonely, you know, going from city to city and country to country and hotel room to hotel room, and I may or may not know friends or colleagues in the area. So, it's really the interaction that I have with the orchestra and with the conductor and with the staff of the orchestra, that I really get a chance to be around and talk with and interact with people. So, you know, from a social standpoint, I love it. But from a musical standpoint, I mean, it's a cliche thing to say, for someone to say, “Oh, I learned something new about the piece every time. I don't play the same every time.” And I mean, part of what really makes those things ring true is the fact that you do play with different people and different conductors every time.

Mohr, interview: From your recording. I've kind of known you as an artist who is very interested in the whole diversity movement. I guess you might say that's happening right now in such a big way in the classical music world. And yet, here you are, in Aspen getting ready to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, and you can't get any more standard repertoire than that.

Goosby: Right.

Mohr: Tell me about that work. It was described as “caffeinated by your” conductor, Nicolas McGegan, but I wonder how you might describe this work? And why do you think this is a work that is so beloved?

Goosby: Well, you know, the diverse composers and diversifying the repertoire is, obviously, a big part of what I do. And eventually, I hope that it's not even considered a movement anymore — that's just the way it is, we have a lot of different composers in the mix — and I think we're very slowly working our way towards that point. But I think Mendelssohn is as true to who I am as Florence Price or William Grant Still. I didn't fall in love with classical music because I listened to Black composers. I fell in love with classical music because I was able to listen to and watch great violinists play some of this great music. And as far as describing the piece, it’s got the drama, it's got the heat, the fire, the emotion, the intimacy. It covers the whole range of human emotion.

Goosby: I'm really looking forward to it. I'm not a coffee drinker, but I might have to have a few sips before that first rehearsal, hearing how Nic McGegan described it, but I'm really, really looking forward to it. It's a really wonderful piece.

Mohr, narrator: Violinist Randall Goosby and conductor Nicholas McGegan join forces with the Aspen Chamber Symphony this evening at the tent at 5:30 for a mostly Mendelssohn concert. And if you want to caffeinate before the concert, you can check out the concession stand right by the tent. From the Edlis Neeson arts and culture desk, I'm Chris Mohr.

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Classical music reporter Chris Mohr has loved classical music since he was twelve. “And I owe it all to radio,” Chris explains. “I grew up in a farm town east of Cleveland. One day I turned on the local classical radio station. They were playing Vivaldi, and it was like the gates of heaven opened up to me!" Chris is also a composer, and is working on a 53-note-to-the-octave oratorio, "Melodies of the Shoreless Sea." This is his ninth summer working for Aspen Public Radio.
Dominic joined the Edlis Neeson arts and culture desk at Aspen Public Radio in Jan. 2022.
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