Each holiday season, Houstonians eagerly await a plethora of events that officially signify the start of the most wonderful time of the year! The lighting of the Christmas tree at Bayou Bend Gardens, an evening stroll through tunnels of lights at the Houston Zoo, glittering galaxy displays at NASA, and the time-honored refrains of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah at the Houston Symphony are all yuletide staples for the Space City. While we are regretfully unable to have our wonderful Houston Symphony Chorus join us this year due to social distancing, we are still pleased to offer a splendid offering of Baroque favorites, performed by a stellar cast of renowned guest artists. We also welcome back Baroque specialist (and Symphony favorite!) Nicholas McGegan to conduct this program. McGegan sat down with us to explain how he programmed this carefully curated collection of holiday music.
Houston Symphony: What was your process of programming A Baroque Christmas?
Nicholas McGegan: This program was put together by Rebecca Zabinski [Houston Symphony’s Director of Artistic Planning] and myself as a replacement for the full and very grand Messiah that was originally planned. Because of COVID restrictions, it was not possible to use a chorus, who have a great deal to sing in Messiah, but we could still give each of the soloists something good to sing from the arias in the oratorio. In addition, we had to go back to Handel’s much more “slimline” orchestration rather than the technicolor version that Sir Andrew Davis had done. So we decided to give each soloist a number or two from the oratorio, plus the overture and the little Pastoral Symphony in Part I. We invited the soloists to propose some of their favorite arias and decided on six of them. We thought then how lovely it would be to add a couple of pieces from Bach’s wonderful Christmas Oratorio, a work that, in my view, isn’t performed nearly often enough. Both arias give very fine opportunities for members of the orchestra to play delightful solos as well. Finally, we added Corelli’s magnificent Christmas Concerto to round out the program and make it an evening of music by three of the giants of the Baroque period.
HS: Did onstage social distancing help or hinder your programming choices?
NM: Because of social distancing requirements, we had to reduce the size of the orchestra to something more like Handel’s original. We will still retain the oboes and bassoons that the composer sometimes calls for and, of course, a trumpet soloist for the magnificent aria “The trumpet shall sound.” During my last week with the Symphony, I was delighted to see how well the musicians had adapted to playing widely separated on stage. It is not as easy as it might appear but in my previous visit, they did one of the very best played performances of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony I’ve ever heard. Bravo to all of them!
HS: You’ve got a stellar line-up of vocal soloists, but they’re better known for Verdi and Wagner than they are for Bach and Handel. Did that factor into the programming? Does it change the way you conduct?
NM: I have never worked with any of the soloists and very much look forward to meeting them. As you point out, their usual repertoire is at least a century later than Bach and Handel, but of course all of them have sung earlier music while they were studying. One special treat will be to hear Handel’s original version of the soprano aria “Rejoice” which is hardly ever performed these days. I conducted Messiah over 150 times and each one is different depending on the soloists, size of orchestra, and chorus. This one will be another most enjoyable adventure!
HS: What are your holiday plans during this most unusual year?
NM: In a normal December, I would conduct Messiah, sometimes right up until a couple of days before Christmas. Every other year, I conduct a Messiah or a Viennese concert on New Year’s Day in Scotland where we also live some of the year. This holiday season I was supposed to be on a month’s tour of Australia doing Messiah in several different cities. Sadly, that did not happen, but I am thrilled to be invited to Houston once again… my third visit since August! Over this Christmas and New Year, I will actually have a little break, just like everyone else. What a treat!
Watch a special message from guest conductor Nicholas McGegan about the concert!
The Houston Symphony presents A Baroque Christmas on December 4–6. In-person and livestream tickets are available now. Whether you attend our socially distanced program in-person or enjoy the livestream from home, we at the Houston Symphony wish you all a very happy, healthy, and cheerful holiday season!