Baroque Philharmonia: A softer side of the Mondavi Center

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It takes no time to be who you are, but it takes time to be misguided. And as the music started and lights dimmed at 8 p.m. at the Mondavi Center Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, to an almost sold-out audience, a sense of time disappeared.

World-famous pianist Emanuel Ax tapped lightly on the ivory keys of the antique piano in front of him, made in Vienna circa 1700 AD, while musicians playing replicas or authentic instruments of the same time period sat behind him. The

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Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra played Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4, using only the instruments of that period.

“Baroque is the period in which the music was written and played on the instruments of that time,” explains conductor Nicholas McGegan.
Before the performance, McGegan spoke to patrons about the concert, saying, “You will be watching Emanuel Ax play on a Baroque piano, made in Vienna … It is similar to an actual piano Beethoven would have played.”

McGegan, during the lecture, set up promises and expectations for his audience. “Modern orchestras play at a higher pitch,” he said. “The tone of our Baroque symphony will be lower in pitch; this is because the instruments are all wood … they would become firewood otherwise.”

The explanation helped, because when the orchestra opened and the sound of the piano’s “tink” hit audience members’ ears, it set up anticipation for more, and even a sense of “What will come next?” Will there a startling bang from the

 timpani or a rocketing spike in tone from the violins?

But as promised, the music stayed soft, gently drawing patrons’ ears toward the stage. The slight pop on the piano, whip on the oboe and flicker of the clarinet pushed and pulled the audience members in their seats. The heavy volume of big accompaniments was subdued.

Apparently even outside of Jackson Hall in the concession area, manager of food and beverage services at the Mondavi Center Marissa Tidrick said, “I could feel the ebb and flow of the concert from out here … the acoustics are really good.”

Other patrons who sat inside the theater at orchestra level, including patron Gary Matteson, said, “The piano was too soft.”

Allison Lukanich said, “The seating was really tight; my back started to burn and it distracted me from the music a good part of the night.” Another problem was entirely due to staging; because of the way the piano sat on the stage, only the left side of the auditorium could see Ax’s hands or fingers titillate the piano keys. The right side was left out of this visual experience.

Despite some minor irritations for some in the audience, McGegan’s end product was delivered and appreciated. Martha Dickman, a resident of Davis since 1970, who regularly gives tours of the Mondavi Center, says, “’Piano’ means soft,” and points to the word “FortePiano” in the program guide, “And ‘Forte’ means ‘plucked.’”

The softer sound meant the ears had to be more patient, which caused a certain amount of anticipation. There wasn’t much pounding on the bassoon. Instead, the musician brushed across the top with authentic sticks, all of which kept the symphony light and even, exactly as McGegan had explained it in the preshow lecture, “Beethoven sometimes used a single instrument to bump up the base.”

Nonetheless, the musicians’ command of their instruments was apparent as they followed McGegan’s lead precisely; timing, pace and a small amount of banter between the instruments seemed to amuse the audience.

“When I watch a performance I marvel at the expertise, talent and the display of perfection,” says Mort Schwarts, 90, and patron of Mondavi Center for the past 25 years. “The Mondavi Center has some of the finest acoustics, and I feel energized when I leave here.”

Other patrons came to see Emanuel Ax again. “I saw him perform 10 years ago in New York,” said Kaveh Barami, 47, who came to the Mondavi Center with his 13-year-old son, Khalid. “I hope to be blown away by tonights performance.”

Indeed, many were blown away by the performance as they gave a standing ovation to the

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Orchestra, conductor McGegan and solo pianist Ax.

And even if the soft sound of the baroque orchestra or the cramped seating was distracting, the experience left many supporters smiling. “I felt like I could see the dancing in my head,” said Peggy Egli of Davis. “I found that I got carried away with the rhythm and the melody.”


Editor’s Note: The second and fifteenth paragraphs of this article have been amended.  Please note that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is not affiliated with Western Health Advantage.  Western Health Advantage only sponsored this particular event. 

The fifth paragraph has been edited per the author’s request to reflect the correct instrument.  

  • Chad Avakian

    The experience of watching the Baroque Philharmonia at the Mondavi Center allowed me to be present the entire night. I didn’t think about what I needed to do tomorrow or the problems of yesterday, i was there, completely. I can describe this feeling as a warm easiness washing over my body like a warm summer breeze in the early evening on the Sacramento River. As I watched the performance I had no thoughts swirling around in my mind, I experienced only the feelings I get when I am happy or something good is happening to me. I highly recommend going and seeing a performance like this to see how it can make you feel as well. It is definitely a thumbs up experience.

  • Please note that the orchestra is not affiliated with Western Health Advantage; that organization was the concert sponsor. The actual name is Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra–for more information visit

    • Allison Joy

      Thanks Jeff. I’ve made an edit and left a note on that.

  • Sorry to see the writer of this article got so many “facts” wrong. First, the piano was made in ca1805-1810, not 1700, you don’t pound on bassoons with sticks, and other ludicrous mistakes. Good for a hearty laugh this morning. Also, for future reference (get an italian dictionary, if nothing else) “forte” means “loud” or “strong”. Other errors too numerous to fix. I am not your editor!

    • Allison Joy

      Thanks for your feedback, janartmuse.

      In regards to the “Fortepiano” mislabel you mentioned, that was a quote from an audience member. While you are indeed correct that the direct translation is not accurate, I believe the idea of “plucking” most likely came from the thin strings associated with the structure of the piano.

      In regards to any other issues you pointed out, we do our best to edit all submitted articles for factual errors. I gather from your username that you may have an expertise in the arts, and I would encourage you to check our weekly assignment list here: and perhaps cover these sorts of events in the future. We’d love to have you on board.

  • No, “plucking” is the mechanical action of a harpsichord; a piano (inclluding the early fortepiano Emanuel Ax played) uses hammers to strike (not pluck) the strings. Neither Beethoven nor the instrument could by any stretch of the imagination be called “Baroque,” certainly not by the orchestra’s conductor. “Pump up the base”? Does the reviewer mean “bass”? Nobody would assign me to review a cricket match, because I don’t know the first thing about cricket. Why send a musical illiterate to review a concert?

    • Allison Joy

      As I said, the error you are referring to is part of a quotation. I was only speculating on why the audience member said what she said.

  • This is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen in print. A concert review where the gal running the concession stand is interviewed? And the patrons complain about the seats? It’s like high camp – Fabulous!

  • To the editor: I appreciate the presence of a reviewer at this concert, but I hope that next time you will send someone who is more familiar with the material they are reviewing. This review demonstrates what happens when the concept of professional journalism is allowed to wither. Online only, local news is great but please, insist on informed reporting and thorough editing.

  • That spinning sound you hear is Beethoven rolling over in his grave!

  • Allison Joy

    I appreciate everyone’s concern and attention to detail. I agree whole-heartedly that the opportunity for factual errors needs to be addressed to prevent this from happening in the future, and have spoken to the Mondavi Center for Performing Arts on how we can tweak our system moving forward.

    That being said, I welcome any one of you to cover classical concerts for The Sacramento Press. Interested parties, please email me!

  • This is very sad indeed. A reviewer that doesn’t even know there is a whole musical period between Baroque and Beethoven. It is like saying that one has gone to a philosophy soirée recapturing the ancient Greeks, and the readings were from Descartes.

  • This is hilarious but tragic. I think a good way of avoiding the “opportunity for factual errors” is to run it past someone to edit. Maybe they should be called an “editor”.

    Anyway, why is Allison Joy answering all these questions? I thought Chad Avakian wrote the review.

  • Allison Joy

    I have been responding to the issue because I am the Community Manager for The Sacramento Press, as well as the moderator of our site. It is my job to collaborate with community contributors such as Mr. Avakian.

    We offer free copy editing services to all of our community contributors, and I am happy to say that Chad utilizes them without fail. Unfortunately, we do not require an expertise in classical music of our copy editors or our contributors. For my part, I also missed the errors.

    As I mentioned above, I have addressed the issue with the Mondavi Center. We will amend our practices going forward in the hopes of preventing a situation like this from happening again.

    That being said, I encourage anyone on this thread to please contact me regarding community contribution! We would welcome anyone with an expertise in this field to utilize their knowledge on our site.

  • The consensus among musicians is that this article is somehow channeling “The Onion”. Personally, I find that an article which generates comments and interest is a good thing. The line about the bassoon being played with sticks is one of the funniest things I have ever seen, but it contains a hidden musicological pun: the etymology of bassoon in Italian derives from “bundle of sticks.”

  • You might want to correct all instances of “bassoon,” not just the one.

    Sorry I can’t help, but I don’t live in the area!

  • Chad Avakian

    I deserve this lashing, I should have been more prepared, my apologies to all I have offended.