Nicholas McGegan has done more for the early music movement in America than nearly anyone else, and his tireless explorations of the byways of Baroque opera have put many fascinating works into the concert hall and onto recordings.
He studied piano at London's Trinity College of Music, and learned to play the flute while he was there, but entertained no special desire to study historical performance. When he entered Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, however, one of the courses required for a music degree was professor Nicholas Shackleton's acoustics course. This course often met in the professor's home, which contained both a large collection of 18th century wind instruments and a tenant named Christopher Hogwood. Hogwood, of course, was then one of the leading lions of the period-instrument Baroque movement in England, so McGegan could not have been in a better position to learn about it. Although he had been studying 20th century music, he picked up a Baroque wooden flute one day and never looked back. During the '70s, McGegan became one of the bright lights of England's starry period-instrument scene, playing the flute, harpsichord, and fortepiano with all the major period instrument groups in England, especially Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music. He became director of early music at the Royal College of Music in London in 1976.
In 1979, McGegan made the fateful decision to accept a three-month artist-in-residence position at Washington University at St. Louis. His teaching and performance caused quite a stir at the university, and numerous renewals of the initial term followed; McGegan has said that during this time he became "more American-based than European-based." In 1985, McGegan became music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, which had previously been a players' cooperative without a leader. The ensemble still places a premium on collaboration and creativity under McGegan's direction. It has become the finest period-instrument group in America and one of the finest in the world since McGegan took it over, making numerous recordings under his direction.
One of the international positions this very busy conductor holds is Artistic Director of the Gottingen Handel Festival, the oldest festival for Baroque music in the world. He also has spread the ideas of historically informed practice in his work with groups such as Hungary's Capella Savaria; the Chicago Symphony; the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras; St. Louis, Toronto, and Sydney Symphonies; the New York, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong Philharmonics; the Northern Sinfonia, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as well as opera companies including Covent Garden, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Washington. McGegan also founded the Arcadian Academy, a chamber offshoot of the PBO, and has served as the Baroque Series Director for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and as an advisory board member for the University of Maryland Handel Festival and London's Handel House. In his pursuit of reviving Baroque works, he's collaborated with dancer Mark Morris to present Rameau's Platée at the Edinburgh Festival and Handel's L’Allegro at Ravinia and the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his academic credentials and background in period performance, McGegan's performances exemplify joy and fun, rather than sober scholarship. He has compared the PBO to a "jazz band" in terms of its ability to play together and play with spirit, and the comparison rings true when listening to the PBO live or on record -- or, indeed, when listening to any of McGegan's performances. Although he is primarily identified with -- and has won awards for his recordings of -- Handel, he has played repertoire stretching into the 19th century, and has brought the same sense of fun to all of it. ~ Andrew Lindemann Malone