Tom Strini
This Week at the MSO

Conductor James Gaffigan

By - Apr 5th, 2012 08:25 pm
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Guest conductor James Gaffigan. Margaretta K. Mitchell photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Symphony.

I met conductor James Gaffigan briefly in January of 2011, after he led the successful premiere of Geoffrey Gordon’s Trombone Concerto, written for the MSO’s Megumi Kanda.

After Gaffigan walked away, Gordon said to me: “That guy — he’s the real deal.”

Gaffigan is back, to lead the Milwaukee Symphony in Haydn’s Symphony No. 26, (Lamentatione), with Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony and Glazunov’s Concerto in A minor, with concertmaster Frank Almond as soloist, Friday and Saturday (April 6-7).

Gaffigan’s clear grasp of Gordon’s concerto and crackling MSO readings of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) and Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3 confirmed Gordon’s assessment. So does the remarkable career he’s leading.

At 32, Gaffigan has just completed his first year as chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, in Switzerland. He also serves as principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra (which Edo de Waart once led). Gaffigan made his Vienna Opera debut last spring, and his guest conducting credits include most of the US majors and many  A-list European orchestras. Gaffigan came to Milwaukee directly from a gig with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He had stints as an assistant conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra (2003-2006) and the San Francisco Symphony (2006-2009).

“I got in front of major orchestras when I was very young,” Gaffigan said, after rehearsal Thursday afternoon. “I was too young and stupid to know what a big thing it was. It was all so much fun — I just didn’t worry about critics or whether the musicians would like me.”

He has since learned to worry about such things, and admits to an attack of nerves before every concert.

“But now I know that I will always be nervous,” he said. “If I’m ever not nervous, that’s when I should probably quit.”

His musical inclinations came out of the blue. He grew up in suburban Staten Island, N.Y. Dad was a salesman for Procter and Gamble, mom worked as a secretary in a public school. Mom got the idea that she would teach herself piano and bought herself one. It proved more attractive to James than to her. He started making up “little jingles” when he was five or six.

Neighborhood piano lessons followed — then the guitar, jazz and rock bands, and clarinet and bassoon in the the orchestra at the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. He credits his study of jazz, especially, for “opening up my ears.” Then came the New England Conservatory, where he discovered his passion for conducting. He pursued it further in graduate school at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, where he studied with Larry Rachleff.

“I learned so much from Larry,” Gaffigan said. “He taught me not to be lazy. I was really lazy.”

In 2000, David Zinman selected Gaffigan as one of eight inaugural fellows of the American Academy of Conducting, at the Aspen Music Festival.

“I saw so many people’s eyes tear up on the podium in Aspen,” Gaffigan said. “You can be humiliated in front of 40 musicians. You have to have thick skin. If David Zinman said I looked like a cheerleader, I could only think that was pretty funny. I remember doing some Brahms, I think I had my eyes closed and I was really into it, just holding the music in my hands. And Zinman said, ‘Do you watch Karajan videos?’ I said I didn’t. He said, ‘Do you watch Karajan videos?’ I admitted I did. And he said: ‘You’re not Karajan.’ That was it. It was hilarious.”

Zinman credits not only Rachleff and Zinman as mentors, but also the Cleveland Orchestra.

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James Gaffigan. Peter Weinberger photo courtesy of the MSO.

“My first orchestra was the Cleveland Orchestra,” Gaffigan said, marveling at the fact. “It’s the most cultured orchestra in the world. Everyone in that orchestra was my teacher.”

His career took off after San Francisco. Gaffigan had a blast as a globe-trotting guest conductor. He thought he would never want to settle down and be a music director. But a longing for a little more stability came over him at some point.

He spoke of the joys of living in beautiful Lucerne and of his astonishment at how quickly the orchestra and he have grown together. A close parallel is his home life. His wife, writer Lee Taylor Gaffigan, gave birth to their first child, Sofia, seven months ago. So much for the eternal jet-setting conductor.

“It’s fun to date,” Gaffigan. “But now it’s so nice to see something grow, to return to something.”

The Program: Haydn’s Symphony No. 26 in D minor, Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60; with guest conductor James Gaffigan and violinist Frank Almond.

Ticket and Concert Info: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $25 to $102. Visit the MSO’s website or call (414) 291-7605 to order, or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

(By the way, this is a busy period for Almond, the MSO’s concertmaster. One of his Frankly Music programs, featuring William Walton’s challenging Violin Sonata and Elgar’s Quintet for Piano and Strings, is coming up April 16 at Wisconsin Lutheran College. More here.)

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