Maestro Gaffigan worked wonders with the SFO

Sparsely attended, brilliantly played




A palpable sense of anticipation hung in the air Wednesday evening at the Gaillard, as the fair-sized audience settled into their seats for this year’s single festival orchestral concert. Word had gotten around that emerging American conductor James Gaffigan is a force to be reckoned with and that rehearsals had gone brilliantly.

But let’s get one thing straight, Gaffigan is not here to replace Emmanuel Villaume as the festival’s director for opera and orchestra. The selection process for the festival’s future director is far from complete, as I explained in detail in my event preview. But don’t think that means we shouldn’t be overjoyed to have snagged Gaffigan from his busy schedule for even a single concert — especially after what a happy and wonder-struck crowd just experienced at the Gaillard.

First up was one of the supreme showpieces for large orchestra: the Dance of the Seven Veils, from Richard Strauss’s grisly opera, Salome. In the opera, the music accompanies title heroine Salome’s seductive dance (more like a striptease) for her father, King Herod, leading up to her demand that he have John the Baptist beheaded (later, in one of the most revolting scenes in all of opera, she passionately kisses poor John’s severed noggin). The work was not only condemned by the church but caused a huge public moral uproar in what was then still a fairly prim and straitlaced society.

Even on its own, the orchestral dance remains vaguely scandalous to this day. After a short and flashy intro, the music goes soft and languorous, full of frankly erotic musical portrayals of come-hither feminine wiles that gradually increase in drama and wanton intensity, building up to a huge and driving climax. From his baton’s first downbeat, Gaffigan led his “orchestra of virtuosos” in perhaps the most riveting performance of this music I’ve ever heard in concert. There was a sense of barely-contained, over-the-top passion to the orchestra’s playing — as has often been the case with these magnificent young musicians. Gaffigan’s firm, but flexible leadership allowed him to flow freely with them. But he still kept them under the kind of tight control that’s essential in order to keep such complex music — full as it is of treacherous starts, stops, and hairpin turns — from falling flat on its noisy face.

Next came music of a similarly scandal-inducing nature but composed in an entirely different musical language. We heard four frothy fragments from Claude Debussy’s music to The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, a five-hour narrated patchwork amalgamation of semi-pagan ballet and sacred oratorio that set Paris on its musical (and moral) ear almost exactly a hundred years ago.

Realizing that the ungainly work would probably never be performed again in its entirety, the composer drew four promising excerpts from the score and fashioned an orchestral suite of sorts from them. Inspired by Wagner’s musically ecstatic and spiritually intense opera Parsifal, Debussy nonetheless created his own unique kaleidoscopic sound-world of exotic modalities (and his pet whole-tones). Calling for a massive orchestra of over a hundred players, the festival had to hire a few of the best local musicians to round out the necessary numbers. Again, Gaffigan and company produced glowing and exotic sound, while bringing out the score’s more subdued, ecstatic, and celestial qualities. He held the music’s often soaring, extended melodic lines together beautifully, while crafting incredibly affecting and supremely colorful sonic “blooms” that beguiled our senses and transported us to strangely appealing new worlds. A barely bobbled horn-note was the only small instrumental flaw I could catch.

After halftime, a slightly smaller band took the stage for the grand finale, Russian master Sergei Prokofiev’s mighty and magnificent Symphony No. 5, the most popular of his seven works in that form. While it’s surely a “wartime” symphony (written in 1944, when Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany was all but guaranteed), the work still lacks the kind of violence and desolation found in Prokofiev’s own wartime piano sonatas or Shostakovich’s symphonies from that period. While the first movement and parts of the second contain warlike elements, the piece comes across as essentially life-affirming and triumphant. Hearing the piece live for the first time in many years, I was struck anew by its similarities (in both mood and thematic content) to some of Prokofiev’s stage music, most notably his beloved Romeo and Juliet ballet score.

Gaffigan and friends brought it off spectacularly. From sweet and lyrical sunshine to stormy, near-violent drama, they realized the music’s every mood and effect to near-perfection. Our young maestro demonstrated his tight feel for musical organization and sense of line as he led his players through the sprawling score. I seem to say this every year, but I wonder if these terrific players — the orchestral superstars of tomorrow — have ever sounded better. After all, resident conductor John Kennedy — who selected the musicians in highly competitive nationwide auditions — told me that this year’s batch of final selectees is the best-ever.

While the event was certainly not poorly attended, I was disappointed to see several stretches of empty seats. If you weren’t there, I’m sorry for you — because you missed a truly magnificent, musically thrilling concert.

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