The archetypal image of a conductor is a combination of age, authority, a severe demeanor. Imagine the contrast of a very young, informal, open and warm presence on the podium. At a mere 27, and looking even younger, James Gaffigan made an impressive conducting debut last week in Davies Hall. The San Francisco Symphony's new associate conductor opened his first subscription concert by leading a large, well-known, transparent work, rather than conducting new or rarely performed music that can make an initial assessment difficult.
Brahms' Symphony No. 3 provides no places to hide, and as you hum (quietly) all the way through it, you should hear all the boo-boos — if there are any. There were none worth mentioning. The performance was all of one piece, and it was exhilarating.
Gaffigan is Michael Tilson Thomas' first associate — rather than assistant — conductor here. He arrives with a well-publicized mandate of important functions in leading the orchestra on his own, in addition to assisting MTT. Previously assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Gaffigan has won the Georg Solti Conducting Competition in Frankfurt, and he has led performances in the Zürich Opera.
A small, slight man with a crown of dense hair, Gaffigan conducts passionately, with large, sweeping motions, and he doesn't exhibit the slightest sign of self-important posing. His attention is on the music (without referring to the score) and the musicians; apparently not interested in looking good, he winds up doing just that.
The Brahms symphony opened securely, self-confidently, with rock-solid consistency in tempos and balance. A bit closer to Tchaikovsky than Beethoven, Gaffigan's Brahms is smooth and rounded, more romantic than heroic. Regardless of your own preference, the conductor's interpretation was made valid by its sincerity and excellence. The orchestra supported Gaffigan well, showing attention and respect.
The opening Allegro was serene but straightforward, romantic but not gushing. The Andante sparkled: Gaffigan brought in the brass smoothly under the strings, and they reached their big moments in a "logical" way (though the fortes were slightly overdone). The sound was either a bit thin or chamber-music-like, depending on individual perception. To me, it sounded more like the latter.
The big fourth movement was a crackerjack, even if some climaxes were more noisy than powerfully broad. Individual passages came through brilliantly and the entire movement hung together splendidly.
Here, as at the end of the other movements, Gaffigan directed a rare kind of cutoff — smooth releases, with a subliminal resonance, rather than clean and crisp in a showy manner. Based on his debut, we should expect nothing showy or show-biz from Gaffigan, "just" the real thing.
Interviewed after completing the S.F. Symphony series and before leaving for Frankfurt to lead performances of Bruckner's Symphony No. 6, Gaffigan talked about opera, which he said is his "favorite genre."
Why opera? He explained: "I am not a great pianist but I love to accompany artists, and I feel most comfortable in the pit of an opera house." Although he turned down an important staff position with the Zürich Opera (where he has led acclaimed performances of "La Bohème") to come to San Francisco to become MTT's associate conductor, he dreams of leading "Otello," "Così fan tutte," "Abduction From the Seraglio," and he admits to be a "`Tristan' maniac." Even more significantly, Gaffigan's fiancée is an "operatic soprano," recently appointed as the Philharmonia Baroque's office and events coordinator.
Born in Staten Island, New York, Gaffigan's musical career started early in childhood when his (nonmusician, but music-loving) parents bought a piano for themselves. They were almost immediately displaced at the keyboard by the youngster. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art (of "Fame" fame) followed. Gaffigan played jazz guitar and bassoon there, but by the time he arrived at the New England Conservatory, his goal was to become a conductor.
He led an orchestra for the first time at rehearsals of Dvorák's Eighth Symphony, and later created conducting opportunities for himself by leading new works "in search of performances" that were written by faculty members. During his graduate school years at Rice, Gaffigan frequently attended Houston Grand Opera performances. To this day, he speaks with respect of David Gockley's leadership there. (The two are neighbors now: Gaffigan is in Davies Hall, and Gockley is across Grove Street, where he heads the San Francisco Opera.)
In 2000, the well-traveled young conductor participated in the inaugural year of David Zinman's American Academy of Conducting in Aspen. He received the first Robert Harth Conducting Award in 2002, when he also made his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Blossom Music Festival and became a conducting fellow at Tanglewood. He then served as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 2003 to 2006.
He had several big breaks that few assistants get — at one point he took over for Franz Welser-Möst when the Cleveland Orchestra music director came down with an ear infection. "It's a weird job in that respect," Gaffigan muses. "We're waiting for people to go down. You don't wish any harm on people, but some good things come out of bad things." During that time at the Cleveland Orchestra, his initial appearance at Zürich Opera was also made possible by filling in for Welser-Möst, who was called to the rescue after the scheduled conductor, Marcello Viotti, suddenly died.
Although he has guest conductor assignments coming up in the U.S. and Europe (and is rumored to have job offers in profusion), Gaffigan is settling down in San Francisco to stay for a good while — intentionally and contractually. "Oh, yes," said an unnamed symphony official, "we've got him!"