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The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert on WRTI: Nicholas McGegan leads Bach and Handel with featured organist Paul Jacobs

Nicholas McGegan, who conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of Bach and Handel, with organist Paul Jacobs and soloists from the Orchestra.
Randi Lynn Beach
Nicholas McGegan, who conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of Bach and Handel, with organist Paul Jacobs and soloists from the Orchestra.

Join us on Sunday, April 9 at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, April 10 at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2 as The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert brings you an all-Baroque program from the 2022/2023 season, featuring works by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Friederic Handel and Jean-Fery Rebel.

Nicholas McGegan leads the concert from the harpsichord, and organist Paul Jacobs is featured in a Handel organ concerto known as “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” because of birdsong effects in its second movement. Handel was a virtuoso organist who played organ concertos as interludes during performances of his oratorios. This gave Handel the opportunity to show off his skills as a performer and an improviser, as Paul Jacobs tells WRTI’s Susan Lewis.

Paul Jacobs talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about playing Handel's organ concertos

Handel was famously prolific, churning out new works at a steady clip. One reason was his prodigious imagination, of course, but another was the fact that he was a great recycler. Two of this concerto’s movements are retooled from an earlier trio sonata, and a few years later he would plunder the other two movements of this concerto to fuel a concerto grosso. Handel didn’t only borrow from himself, either. A couple of themes, including the cuckoo idea, are picked up from works by two of his contemporaries. It was a perfectly acceptable practice in Baroque times, not unlike sampling in popular music today.

Paul Jacobs, who performs works for organ by Bach and Handel with The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Fran Kaufmann
Paul Jacobs, who performs works for organ by Bach and Handel with The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Jacobs also plays an organ solo by Johann Sebastian Bach: the Prelude and Fugue in a minor, BWV 543. Written when Bach was in his twenties and coming into his own as an organ virtuoso, this Prelude and Fugue culminates with a powerful cadenza in the pedals.

Later in the program, soloists from the Orchestra are featured in three of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos, which gained their nickname as the result of a brief encounter between Bach and the Margrave of Brandenburg, a nobleman who vaguely expressed interest in seeing some of Bach’s music. The composer, who likely hoped for a position in Brandenburg, assembled this package of six existing concertos as a kind of speculative job application. No job ever materialized; indeed, the Margrave never even opened the package.

Even though the dedicatee remained clueless about the greatness of these concertos, posterity has made up for it. These are now among Bach’s best-loved works. Each of the concertos is for a different combination of instruments. On this program, string players from the Philadelphia Orchestra play the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. In the Concerto No. 4, concertmaster David Kim, principal flute Jeffrey Khaner, and second flute Olivia Staton are featured. David Kim and Jeffrey Khaner are also soloists alongside principal oboe Philippe Tondre and guest trumpeter Caleb Hudson in the Concerto No. 2.

McGegan has programmed a fascinating rarity to open this concert: an extraordinary evocation of the Chaos that preceded the creation of the world. It’s music by the 18th-century French composer Jean Fery Rebel, a prominent musician at the court of King Louis the 14th. In 1738, Rebel conceived a ballet called The Elements, in which he attempted to musically render the emergence of creation from the elements of earth, water, air, and fire. Rebel himself described Chaos as “the confusion that reigned before the moment that the elements assumed their prescribed places in the natural order.” To express this in music, Rebel wrote at the time, “I have dared to link the idea of confusion of the elements with that of confusion in harmony. I have risked opening with all the notes of an octave played as a single sound.”

Nicholas McGegan talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about conducting Bach and Handel with The Philadelphia Orchestra

That sound would certainly have shocked Rebel’s audiences. It would be two centuries before anything of the kind was heard on a regular basis in concert. And frankly, it’s still a bit startling to us today.


Rebel: “Chaos,” from The Elements

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in a minor, BWV 543

Handel: Organ Concerto No. 13 in F major

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV. 1048

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in F major, BWV 1047

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Nicholas McGegan, conductor

Paul Jacobs, organ

David Kim, violin

Jeffrey Khaner and Olivia Staton, flute

Philippe Tondre, oboe

Caleb Hudson, trumpet

Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcasts every Sunday at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1, streaming at WRTI.org, on the WRTI mobile app, and on your smart speaker. Listen again on Mondays at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2. Listen for up to two weeks after broadcast on WRTI Replay. 

Melinda has worked in radio for decades, hosting and producing classical music and arts news. An award-winning broadcaster, she has created and hosted classical music programs and reported for NPR, WQXR—New York, WHYY–Philadelphia, and American Public Media. WRTI listeners may remember her years hosting classical music for WFLN and WHYY.
Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.