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A Conductor With Dramatic Flair

November 6, 2007

It was all treats and no tricks whatsoever in Davies Hall on Halloween night as far as the music went. Appearances, on the other hand, were somewhat misleading.
A few years into the future, perhaps, not every mention of San Francisco Symphony Associate Conductor James Gaffigan will refer to his age and appearance. For the time being, however, audiences used to elderly and stately patriarchs with long, flowing white hair are still surprised by the 28-year-old, who looks considerably younger. He's an unimposing, rather short, informal man, with a haircut that could be acceptable in the Marine Corps.

Observant concertgoers notice that Gaffigan stands next to the podium during curtain calls, rather than stepping up on it to look taller. His age matters not a whit in gaining as much attention and enthusiastic support from the orchestra as any older, taller conductor, and he leads performances that involve you, or make you feel righteous, or beguile you — or all three.
Prelude Goes to the Heart
That maximum impact came early in the Wednesday concert, with the opening piece, the “Prelude and Dance of the Persian Maidens” excerpts from Mussorgsky's posthumous Khovanshchina (first performed in 1886, in Rimsky-Korsakov's completion).

The orchestra played the manic Dance movement in white heat, with control and brilliance, but it was the Prelude — quiet, low-key, meandering music — that served as the calling card of a conductor to opera born, one who may well loom as a giant in any opera pit. This was music of total presence, every note in place, with subtle tempo changes and a feather-light, shimmering sound that went through the ears and directly to the heart. It was so right, so gorgeous, so ... Russian.

Will Gaffigan cross Grove Street for an appearance soon in the War Memorial? Only David Gockley knows, and he is still at work trying to arrange a debut with the Opera for Gaffigan's boss, the opera-virtuoso/opera-house-resistant MTT. As Donald Runnicles is here for another couple of years, to be followed by Nicola Luisotti as music director, San Francisco has two blocks of major opera conductors, present and future.
Rachmaninov the Cruel
What goes up must come down, and after these perfect miniature gems came another Russian work, Sergei Rachmaninov's 1901 Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, a tough junior brother to the legendary "Rach 3," his "impossible" Third Piano Concerto of 1909.

There are entire movies made about "Rach 3" (remember Shine?), but the challenge for the Davies Hall soloist in the second concerto is enormous, as well, even without back stories of earthshaking passion and insanity. Lise de la Salle, 19 (and looking, yes, younger), took on the challenge and won, in an exceptional virtuoso performance, albeit with the effort showing. Perhaps it's not fair to expect someone on the cusp between prodigy and young talent to do more than "play through" the Rachmaninov — to make it sound elegant, effortless, and musical, as Arcadi Volodos and other more mature artists do. Still, there was a problem with what sounded like nervous music-making, even to the point of shadows of syncopation where there should be even spaces between the notes. The young French artist is an undeniable talent, but needs more certainty and self-confidence.

As for the Gaffigan-SFS part in the Rachmaninov, the conductor's operaphile nature was evident here, too, in his careful, supportive cradling of the pianist's voice, with the orchestra backing him up every step of the way. They were more naturally fluid, less ponderous than the Riccardo Chailly-Concertgebouw partnership in the Volodos recording linked to above.
A Massive Change of Seasons
If you heard the concert, you are free to disagree with that judgment. But there can be no disagreement about what Gaffigan and the orchestra did with Chen Yi's 2005 Si Ji ("Four Seasons"), the Chinese-American composer's Chinese-Western musical poetry depicting the changing seasons. You may or may not appreciate this 15-minute work, which packs a large-scale, occasionally thunderous sound, but it's impossible to say how it could have been better played. Ensemble tightness, precision, and commitment were truly as good as it can get. First-chair players all around the orchestra shone brightly.

For a grand finale, there was the 1880 version of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, in an operatically broad, brilliant reading. Gaffigan led an eminently romantic, but never sentimental performance, with quarter-century SFS veteran Douglas Rioth's stalwart harp anchoring the music that surges between the largest of sweeping melodies and the most heartfelt quiet singing.

During the Tchaikovsky, attention focused once again on Gaffigan, and his simple, unshowy, effective technique; his consistent "living in the music"; and his sustained ability to approach each phrase with an unusual combination of intimate musical knowledge and improvisational discovery. He truly is the Will Rogers of music: His whole being says that he never met a note he didn't like.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].