Thursday, April 02, 2009

An Interview with James Gaffigan

James Gaffigan has been the Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony for the last three years and it was announced recently that this season would be his final one in that role because he was moving on to bigger and better things in his career. This week he is conducting his last subscription concerts with the orchestra in a program that includes an obscure Haydn symphony, the local premiere of Thomas Ades' 2005 violin concerto, and my favorite Mozart symphony, No. 39.

I stumbled across Gaffigan at a summer pops concert in 2007 where he took Mozart's hackneyed, overplayed "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and made it sound freshly minted. This is a rarer accomplishment than you'd imagine. I've been following most of his local appearances in San Francisco ever since, from a terrible "Latin" pops program in Dolores Park where gale force winds were knocking over the music stands, to a recent Shostakovich First Symphony at Davies Hall that was smashing in an altogether better way. (Click here for a link to the seven posts about Gaffigan over the last two years.) I asked the symphony if I could interview James for a few minutes about his plans for the future, particularly in opera, where he's slated to conduct the Mozart/DaPonte trilogy with "Don Giovanni" in Aspen, "Cosi Fan Tutti" at the legendary Glyndebourne Festival, and "The Marriage of Figaro" for the Houston Opera.

The ten-minute interview in the empty Davies Hall lobby turned into a freewheeling forty-five minute talk about the music world and it simply confirmed what I already suspected, which is that the 29-year-old Gaffigan is both ridiculously smart and charming. He was also surprisingly frank and honest.

My first question was how he learned to conduct Mozart so strikingly well, and he replied, "I just got it immediately, the first time I heard his music." The New York City based Gaffigan came "late" to classical music at the age of 14, after starting off wanting to be a rock and jazz guitarist. His instrument at the Juilliard School Prep Division was the bassoon, "because I loved the sound of it, plus it was Frank Zappa's instrument which made it cool." Seated in the student orchestra with all the other instruments surrounding him opened a world of wonder, and he soon started conducting new pieces composed by fellow students "because nobody else wanted to do that particular job." Since that time, he has made his way through a number of schools, music festivals such as Tanglewood, and been assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. He's been honing his craft and the rest of the world has started to notice as he's making debuts with everybody from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.

I asked him what he would love to conduct in an ideal world where he had all the choices, and his eyes lit up. "Ah, 'Otello' at La Scala, 'Elektra' at the Vienna State Opera, the Brahms Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic, anything big from the late Romantic repertory with the Cleveland Orchestra." How about singers he'd like to work with? "Karita Mattila, just saw her in 'Salome' at the Met and was blown away, Fritz Wunderlich if he was alive, Measha Brueggergosman, Ian Bostridge, Sasha Cooke, Elza van den Heever." Who are his favorite composers, dead and alive? "Debussy, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Britten, and for living composers Thomas Ades and Marc-Andre Dalbavie." Verdi or Wagner, I asked him, and he gave me a grin acknowledging this was still a minefield. "Verdi. I understood his music directly the first time I heard it. The second act of 'Tristan,' though, is some of the most amazing music ever written and the more I listen to it the more fascinating it is," and he held forth on chromatic strains to my delight and incomprehension for the next five minutes.

He's probably asked "How is the classical music world going to attract younger audiences?" in every other interview, so I didn't bother, but he offered the interesting observation that it's hip right now among young people to be educated and sophisticated. "Single malt scotch is in, and so is classical music. You don't have to dumb it down. Even though it's a scary time in terms of the economy, this is also a really exciting time to be in the classical music world."

The opening performance of this week's concert last night was great, and there are repeats this Thursday afternoon at 2PM, Friday at 6:30 PM, and Saturday at 8PM. I can't recommend his conducting of Mozart's Symphony #39 highly enough and the program doesn't seem to be selling all that well so there were $20 rush seats available Wednesday and Thursday, and there will probably be some available on Friday and Saturday. Call (415) 503-5577 on the day of performance to find out, and check out a future superstar while he's still young.


Unknown said...

He is so great. I was so crushed when I found out he was married :-(

jolene said...

He's leaving???!? Oh no... I really enjoyed his conducting. I was lucky to catch him conduct an all-Mozart concert in the summer, which I really enjoyed.

Great interview, Mike. I think he's right when he says, "Single malt scotch is in, and so is classical music. You don't have to dumb it down. Even though it's a scary time in terms of the economy, this is also a really exciting time to be in the classical music world." It still makes me a little sad b/c I do think that a lot of young people attend not for the music, but for the classiness of it all. The music snob in me thinks that these aren't the people who would stand in line for three hours to get tickets to the SF Symphony, as I did once a few years ago. Although this is the reason that many people of all ages attend, including big donors.

Sorry to leave a cynical mark on your freshly upbeat interview. Is he conducting again with the SFS outside of the subscription concert? Best of luck to James Gaffigan! I'm sure bigger and better things await for this bright star.

Civic Center said...

Dear Jolene: That's not a cynical mark, just honest observation. Gaffigan is actually sticking around through the Summer in the City programs this year so you'll still have plenty of opportunities to hear him. The Symphony is going to "rebrand" the summer series and Gaffigan gave me details about a few of the cool programs he's going to be conducting, but I have to wait until the official announcement on April 14th.

Dear Maura: Condolences. I think quite a few staffers at the Symphony felt the same way.

John Marcher said...

Nice interview Mike! His opera choices are surprising. I'm going to go to the Saturday performance.

Matthew Hubbard said...

The single malt and classical music comment is compelling. The amount of crap in our society so obviously mass produced and being forced on us is growing so quickly that the number of people who are rejecting it is now too large to ignore. A few years back, ads for American beer sneered at "beer with fruit in it" and fancy stuff from foreign countries. Now even Budweiser has a lime infused beer and sells an ale.

It's also interesting that the beer on tap in bars now is one that doesn't advertise much, Pabst Blue Ribbon, or PBR for short. I was talking to some young people in a brewpub, and they say it's their favorite American beer for the taste, not just because it's cheap.

Off topic from classical music, I know and I apologize, but I hope not completely off the mark.

Ced said...

Great interview, Mike. From the pix, looks like it was a bit too early in the morning for him, check those puffy eyes!

Civic Center said...

Dear Ced: I didn't notice "puffy eyes" but Gaffigan has been living out of a suitcase for the last 12 weeks straight so it wouldn't surprise me.

LouisianaJones said...

Yay! Thank you for giving James all the wonderful attention he deserves Michael.