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Is the era of the great maestro over?

By Sigurd Neubauer


He’s passionate about introducing people to classical music. “I always try to invite people who have never been to a concert and opera by providing them with free tickets,” says James Gaffigan, 42, who for the record, detests being referred to as “Maestro”.

Gaffigan, a successful conductor in his own right, recently conducted back-to-back performances of Jules Massenet’s Manot and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Paris Opera.

As a champion of classical music and opera, Gaffigan boosts about his “100 percent success rate” of convincing his new friends – whether he met them on the plane or elsewhere in life – to return for yet another performance. “In life, when you’re introduced by someone to classical music, it can be a turning point”, the conductor says, who himself grew up in a family with little exposure to classical music let alone opera.

“My family never went to the New York Philharmonic,” Gaffigan says about his upbringing on New York’s Staten Island during the 1990s. “They would never even think about going,” he adds as his father “wouldn’t even know what to wear”.

By referencing his own family, Gaffigan seeks to make a broader point, namely that American orchestras are “not doing enough to bring people into the concert halls. They don’t quite know how to do it yet,” he argues.

“Even though many schools buses in children for visits, they are often not invited back.” Some of the children, the conductor observes, don’t even tell their parents. “We need to whet their appetite and keep in touch with them,” he says. Providing them with affordable ticket prices are critical to engage children in classical music especially if they come from a lower socio-economic background,” the conductor explains.

Paris Opera House
Opéra National de Paris

A next generation conductor

“People have a very strange perception of what a maestro is. We are just normal people. Some think that it is a very glamours lifestyle, which it can be at times,” Gaffigan acknowledges, but quickly adds that conducting “is really about what’s happening in the rehearsal room”.

“Some people think that conductors are only old men, but nowadays, there are female conductors as well of all different races and nationalities,” he says.

“The old conductor as a dictator is dying off.”

The new conductor is more collaborative— who is somewhere in his 30s or 40s – and is more open to compromise, and even criticism. “In the past, it was the conductor’s way or the highway. That period belongs to the past,” Gaffigan asserts.

“Leading by fear is the worst way to lead as there is only so much one can accomplish,” Gaffigan said referring to two of the 20th centuries greatest American conductors: Fritz Reiner and George Szell. “You can have huge success if you listen better in life, a principal that applies to conducting as well.”

The change in conducting started during Gaffigan’s generation when the teaching of the art form became available to younger musicians. In Gaffigan’s case, it started in 1998 when he was 19 years old and got accepted into the legendary Aspen Conducting Academy.

“I was the youngest person attending and it was an amazing experience,” Gaffigan says as he went from there to conduct some of the best orchestras in America in his mid-20s. “It wasn’t like that during Leonard Bernstein’s time, which is why young conductors such as me are so grateful for the opportunities extended to us.” This, he adds, is a key factor of why the next generation conductors didn’t become “my way or the highway type of conductors”.

“The old conductor as a dictator is dying off”

A conductor does nonetheless need charisma, Gaffigan concedes, as he or she need to be able to read the room. “A conductor needs people wanting to work for you, otherwise you’re working against the whole room. My generation changed that,” he explains.

An unorthodox career

He’s a pianist, but “not a very good one,” at least according to Gaffigan’s account.

“I come to music from rock and jazz; I learned it by heart first. I first came to music by hearing and feeling harmonies but did so without knowing the rules.”

“In classical music there are often too many rules,” Gaffigan says, which is why some feel intimidated or that “they’re not smart enough, but the reality is that the art form is for everyone”.

Initially, “my parents were nervous about my aspirations of becoming a musician and not making any money”. Even though “the average musician doesn’t make a lot of money, one can earn a livelihood and even have a good life, but it requires hard work,” Gaffigan explains.

“I always loved scores from the first time I saw one,” although, Gaffigan adds, he was also very intimidated by it with all the instruments in it.  He wondered: “How can I bring this to life?”

From that point on, the youngster, who was around 14 or 15 years old, started frequenting the local public library to read a score while listening to the corresponding recordings.

The more he learned about Harmonic analysis, patterns emerged which made it easier for Gaffigan to read a score. “Now, when I read a score, I can hear everything, and right away,” he explains. At least, anything through Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky, but if it is a score from a contemporary composer who pushes the boundaries of musical harmony, Gaffigan returns to the piano to understand the music.

Legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. Image credit: Karajan Institute, Siegfried Lauterwasser

It was when he was around 17 or 18 that he became certain about his desire to become a conductor. “There was nothing else that I rather wanted to do, even though when I was 13, I wanted to be rock star”.

Gaffigan attended the Juilliard Pre-College Division and later the American Academy of Conducting at the Aspen Music Festival and School, the New England Conservatory of Music, and Rice University.

Among his many mentors is Larry Rachleff who taught him at Rice about work ethics, how to prepare properly and to respect the musicians. David Zinman of the Aspen Music Festival, Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst Cleveland Symphony Orchestra also served as mentors.

It was Welser-Möst who introduced him to the world of opera.

“Welser-Möst trusted me at a very young age and invited me to conduct at the Zurich Opera and the Vienna State Opera to perform works by Franz Schubert, Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and Mozart.

The Cleveland Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra became “musical families,” Gaffigan says.

 From piano to opera

A cliché, but a pattern, nonetheless, is that pianist turned conductor, which is also Gaffigan’s case, often end up conducting operas whereas string players turned conductors tend to focus on symphonies.

“As a pianist you’re more of an accompanist – whether you perform a piano concerto with an orchestra or support singers, which in turn sets the stage for a collaborative way of making music,” he says.

Gaffigan stepped in to conduct a modern production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Paris. Image credit: Opéra National de Paris

These dynamics, Gaffigan explains, makes it easier for a pianist to absorb a larger score. “An opera conductor must have the ability to lead an orchestra, and then manage singers. A conductor needs to have deep admiration for singers,” he says, adding: “They are naked up there on the stage; there is nothing to hid behind.”

Gaffigan wants to make it as easy as possible for them.

“Opera is very much visual and there are many things stimulating the senses at once, which is why I love it so much.”

Concerts in Paris

In January of this year, he conducted Manot at the Paris Opera, which he initially found “intimidating” partly because, as Gaffigan explains it, his French is “miserable”. He also equated performing Manot at the Paris Opera to conducting Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera.

While the Manot performance turned out to be a success, he was up for a surprise: The conductor of a modern production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni was down with COVID, and Gaffigan was asked if he could conduct the following afternoon. He accepted on the condition that he could receive the score and a video of the production the very same evening when the request was made, which came in when he was watching a performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro with his friend and colleague Gustavo Dudamel.

Gaffigan calls Mozart’s music “cleansing”.

Gaffigan also speaks highly of the intendant of the Paris Opera, Alexander Neef, who has an “encyclopedic knowledge of opera, and is always well dressed”. But above all, the conductor doesn’t mince words when he describes his two back-to-back performances with the Paris Opera: “it was a love affair”.

When it comes to modern productions, Gaffigan explains that he has done many, some of which have been “strange”. But overall, 80 percent of the productions he has conducted over the years he would do again, but not the remaining 20 percent.

Mozart’s music is cleansing, says Jame Gaffigan. Photo credit: Opéra National de Paris

For Gaffigan, a prerequisite for carrying out a modern production is that the director “must love the music without tempering with it”. Otherwise, it becomes “a power game,” he says but adds that the job of the conductor is to justice to the score and the composer. “Some conductors believe that a production is a 50-50 game between himself and the composer,” a philosophy Gaffigan rejects. “I believe that it is 100 percent the composer. We, as conductors, are not supposed to reinvent the piece, but rather bring it to life.”

Next, Gaffigan will be the new Music Director of the Komische Oper Berlin, a post he looks forward to as he admires the diversity of its audience. “Everyone is welcome there,” he says adding that “it is a safe place where one never feels intimidated when walking in”.

While the Komische Oper “out programs its bigger competitors in Berlin,” and has in the process developed a reputation in the process for “the shock value of its productions,” Gaffigan’s goal is for the public to speak equally about the quality of the music and the orchestra with the same passion they exhibit for the productions.

Gaffigan lives in Oslo with his Norwegian wife, the concert master of the Norwegian Opera, whom he met during a rehearsal, and their four-year old son.

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