Nicholas McGegan brings humor and soul to Vivaldi and Haydn.

In the second movement Andante of his Symphony No. 30, Franz Joseph Haydn gives a little bonbon of a solo to the flute player. It’s a sweet, music-box sort of melody, played over a gentle, steady march of strings, ending with a pause before Haydn cadences the orchestra back to the principal theme.

Sonora Slocum

Sonora Slocum.

At Saturday night’s performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, flutist Sonora Slocum played the passage beautifully. So much so, in fact, that conductor Nicholas McGegan gave her a little extra stage time. Instead of the brief rubato silence indicated by the score, McGegan stepped back and let Slocum take a little solo, a sort of mini-cadenza, a few brief measures of nothing but the birdsong-like sound of the flute. After that moment, as he issued the downbeat for the orchestra, you could see McGegan flash a delighted smile at Slocum, and she—her flute on her lap—smiled back.

Moments of musical generosity like this made McGegan’s return to Milwaukee this weekend something special. The music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, an acclaimed “period-instrument” ensemble, McGegan’s approach to 18th- and 19th-century music is anything but academic. For some conductors, pre-Romantic music unrolls in a lock-step tempo. But McGegan holds the reins loosely, letting the phrases breath with humanity.

During the passages in which the strings accompanied Slocum’s flute, McGegan shaped the music to accommodate the natural breath of the instrument, pausing briefly between phrases. Conducting two movements of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, he did the same, granting soloist Ilana Setapen the freedom to capture the impressions of the music.

Ilana Setapen

Ilana Setapen.

For this Vivaldi was certainly Impressionist. McGegan (conducting from the harpsichord) shaped the music to capture its theatrical flourishes—the oppressive, languid heat and explosive storms in “Summer,” the erupting natural world in “Spring.” It gave Setapen the freedom to play with an intensity that was by turns playful and dramatic.

That playfulness set the tone for the second half of the concert. It started with a somewhat cursory performance of a suite from Handel’s Water Music, which showcased the precise, sky-high trumpet lines of David Cohen and Alan Campbell. From there, it was on to later Haydn, the “Surprise” Symphony (No. 94 in G Major), and McGegan and the orchestra had a ball. From the first Sforzando “surprise”—the conductor’s extra punch drew some satisfied chuckles from the Uihlein Hall audience—to exuberant waltz sections, which were played with a rhythmic sparkle that might have had audience members dancing in the aisles. At one point, McGegan seemed almost ready to turn and face the audience, and lead them in swaying and head-bobbing to Haydn’s infectious rhythms. But he kept the focus on the players, leading them through Haydn’s elegant melodies with precise attention to the ornamentation that give them an added touch of charm.

McGegan and Setapen will be back Sunday afternoon for another performance. If you’re looking for a touch of charm to light up a dreary weekend, you’ll be there.

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