James Gaffigan to conduct Festival Concert

A brilliant new baton comes to town

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Maestro Emmanuel Villaume’s cherished decade-long tenure as Spoleto USA’s Director of Opera & Orchestra is history — and there’s no doubt that he’ll be sorely missed. We have him to thank not only for brilliant programming and inspired conducting as the festival has moved into the 21st century, but also for his work in helping to raise the performance standards of the magnificent Spoleto Festival Orchestra (SFO). The word is that the administration is not even close to naming his successor, though, according to festival director Nigel Redden, efforts in that direction are definitely under way. So, in the meantime, with a major orchestral concert scheduled, what’s America’s biggest and best performing arts festival to do?

The answer, for now, lies in the engagement of young American conductor James Gaffigan. There are those who might question the wisdom of picking a relatively unseasoned and youthful conductor in a field where many don’t hit their full stride until their 40s or 50s. To that, I can only respond that there are quite a few brilliant “prodigy” baton-shakers out there these days who are making fabulous music and generating lots of buzz (most notably Venezuela’s Gustavo Dudamel). Besides, right from the start, Spoleto has maintained a strong tradition of showcasing the very finest young talents who are destined for greatness. Gaffigan fits that mold.  

Gaffigan’s rocket-ride to stardom in the international conducting firmament was launched in 2004, with his resounding win at the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition. Along the way, he’s definitely paid his dues, having earned most of the important conducting fellowships (Tanglewood, Aspen). He’s also learned much of his craft as assistant to Franz Welser-Möst with the Cleveland Orchestra, and, later, as associate to Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco. He couldn’t have found better mentors. He’s guest-conducted many of the world’s tip-top orchestras both domestic and abroad, on every continent, no less. Opera engagements have taken him to many important houses — he even has an upcoming engagement at the Vienna State Opera, which means he’ll be working with that city’s legendary Philharmonic. 

And now he has two classy bands that he can call his own. Just this year, he’s been named Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Symphony. Suffice it to say that most young conductors would kill for his kind of track record. In fact, I can think of only one or two other emerging conductors worldwide (like Dudamel) who can match or beat it. His schedule of glitzy engagements is positively dizzying, and stretches years into the future.  

During our chat, we spoke at length about some of his most memorable podium moments. Among several such stories, perhaps the most remarkable happened during Gaffigan’s tenure in Cleveland, when his boss Welser-Möst suddenly fell ill, and he had to step in at the last minute to conduct a demanding program (including Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony) with no rehearsal. As he put it, “My musicians put aside all concerns, save for our collective goal of making good music together, and the result was sheer, spontaneous musical magic.” Another of his personal triumphs was when he recently guest-conducted England’s Bournemouth Symphony in a performance of Mahler’s seventh symphony, a “snarling beast” of a work that Gaffigan described as “a caricature of Mahler, and the hardest of all his symphonies for players and listeners alike.” It’s also a work that most fledgling conductors avoid like the plague.  But it turns out that he had understudied the piece when it was performed in both Cleveland and San Francisco. “And we managed to pull it off,” he said. “Even the critics were happy.”        

When I asked him about whether Spoleto had come to him as a possible candidate for their vacant music directorship, Gaffigan hastened to say that, while he knew of the vacancy, no mention was made that this Spoleto gig would amount to an official audition for the job. But he’s aware that a search is in progress, and happily agreed to a “one-shot” appearance for starters. “If a good relationship develops, maybe we’ll go with it,” he said.

This jives with what Redden later told me: “We have yet to define exactly what our next music director’s role will be. Each of our past directors has had different responsibilities. Some of our board members are pushing for a brilliant young conductor, like James, who can adapt and grow as the festival evolves. Others want the ‘luster’ of a more established maestro (some of whom want to bring their own orchestras with them). It may take us awhile to make a decision.” So don’t be surprised if the position remains vacant for a year or two yet, while several and varied candidates are paraded before us.

Meanwhile, we have much to look forward to from Gaffigan. His program with the SFO is audacious and varied: works by Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, and Sergei Prokofiev (his “bizarre, but very human” Symphony No. 5). He relishes the prospect of working with an orchestra made up of America’s most gifted young virtuosos. “I can hardly wait,” he says. “I’ve worked often with Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony (the best of the so-called high-end ‘training orchestras’); the chemistry has always been great, and the music-making fresh and thrilling.” I think we can expect that here, too.           

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