Tag Archives: james gaffigan

rare sibelius and americana

Friday night we played the first of three concerts of what is, both on paper and in the flesh, a very unusual program. Firstly, it essentially runs in reverse. Rather than an “opener, concerto, intermission, big symphony” format that we’ve become quite accustomed to, the program starts with a rarely performed symphony of Sibelius – his Fourth (last performed in Portland in 1948!). Intermission follows, and then another rarity: Edward MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto (played beautifully by Andre Watts), and closing with Aaron Copland’s beloved Appalachian Spring (long ‘a’ or short ‘a’ in Appalachian? It’s your choice, but anyone from the south will say it with a short ‘a’, and that seems plenty authentic to me).

James Gaffigan | Photo: Matt Henneck

James Gaffigan | Photo: Matt Henneck

Guest conductor James Gaffigan is on the podium, and it’s been an enjoyable week working with him. He is confident on the podium, easy to follow, and has ideas about the pieces that we’re performing. Those three things easily elevate any conductor to above the 80th percentile in my book. He’s also unique in his connection to the Oregon Symphony because he has quite a few friends in the orchestra with whom he went to school – several from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Rice University, and from the LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts in New York. It’s sort of like old home week around here. Former OSO concertmaster Jun Iwasaki was also in town and at the concert last night.

Some thumbnail thoughts on the program:

  • The Sibelius really ought to have the nickname “The Introvert”. It’s as austere and severe a piece as Sibelius ever wrote, reflecting an agonized inner landscape as well as the most iconic aspects of Finland’s own landscape as well. It is a piece which, taken as an uncensored personal utterance, is bound to be divisive, and the orchestra is pretty divided between loving and hating it. That being said, you’ll not likely get another chance to hear it live in your lifetime here, so be sure to come take a listen. It’s a journey into the blackest center of a great composer’s soul.
  • MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto really ought to supplant half a dozen overplayed and unwelcome warhorses (e.g. Tchaikovsky 1st, Rachmaninoff 2nd, etc) – it has great tunes, is a remarkable showpiece for the pianist, and is a novelty: an eminently listenable piano concerto that delivers all the goods, and no one’s really heard it for decades. Plus, Andre Watts is in fine fettle this weekend, he’s shredding it.
  • Appalachian Spring is welcome most any time it’s played, and it’s a great chance to hear how finely tuned an orchestra machine that the OSO has become in the past decade. Gaffigan is taking a pretty no-nonsense tack on this piece, which is welcome, because it really doesn’t need to over-sentimentalization that it’s usually subjected to.


bolcom + schmid = a winning combination

Benjamin Schmid - Photo: Benjamin Schmid

Not to short change the rest of the concert, but for me the highlight of our Classical subscription concert last night was the Austrian violinist Benjamin Schmid playing the pants off of the William Bolcom Violin Concerto.  He was just rock solid, and aside from the chops, had a clear affinity for the jazz/classical fusion sound world that Bolcom frequently spends a lot of his compositional time in.  The concerto is a revelation for me – I had heard it performed only once before, with piano accompaniment, and since it was in the midst of a competition, much of it failed to make an impression on me.  Now, having a full rehearsal plus the dress rehearsal to acquaint myself with the work, I have to say that this piece really deserves to be heard much more often.  True, it’s a bit over-orchestrated, which requires some diligent work to balance the soloist with the orchestra, but the colors that Bolcom achieves are quite striking and attractive.  Plus, the last movement is just about as charming as a piece of classical music can get, I must say!  Our soloist this week, Benjamin Schmid, is also an accomplished jazz violinist, as you can see in the video below:

As for the rest of the program, the Rossini Overture to Semiramide featured our spectacular wind section, and they all outdid themselves – earning a “bravo” from the podium (in full voice) during the performance.  Well deserved, indeed!  The Tchaikovsky First Symphony really came together after a rather rough and apathetic rehearsal (by the orchestra, not the conductor).  More great playing from the winds and brass, and we strings acquitted ourselves pretty well, with the viola section getting a rare solo bow.

Sunday afternoon brings the presentation of the Hitchcock film Psycho, with live orchestral accompaniment – if you haven’t yet gotten tickets, plan to show up around 2 pm at the Schnitzer box office to get tickets – there will be a long line to get in.

Online tickets for Psycho – must purchase by 1 p.m. day of show.  After that, box office opens at 2:00 p.m.

the other jim gaffigan

Jim Gaffigan

One of my favorite comedians working today is Jim Gaffigan, so imagine my surprise when I found out that he was going to be conducting this weekend’s performances of the Oregon Symphony!  Well, not quite.  I actually knew that James Gaffigan, this week’s guest conductor, was not in any way a comedian (though he does have quite an impish sense of humor), but I love that these two very different men share virtually the same name.

James Gaffigan - Photo: Mat Hennek

Gaffigan (the conductor) is one of our more enjoyable guest conductors.  He doesn’t impose himself on the orchestra, rather he insinuates his interpretation into our musical psyches.  He’s amiable, clear, and takes his time getting a feel for the orchestra and the hall.  Plus, he knows his stuff.  In short, he’s almost an idea guest conductor.

This week’s program is pretty cool, I must say.  It starts with a Rossini overture, to his opera Semiramide.  It’s a delightful work, one that used to be performed often, but has fallen out of favor these days (along with overtures in general, in spite of the prodigious efforts of violist/overture advocate Jen Arnold).  It features everything you want from an overture: great tunes, sparkling orchestration, and a big finish.

Benjamin Schmid - Photo: Julia Wesely

Then comes a work that I’ve heard once live, but have never heard with orchestra: William Bolcom’s 1983 Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra.  Written for Sergiu Luca (who ran the Cascade Head Music Festival for years in Lincoln City, Oregon), the concerto is really a modern masterpiece.  Written as sort of a collision between Henryk Szeryng and Joe Venuti, it has some really striking orchestra effects, virtuoso writing for the solo violin, and a charming final movement that fully goes over to the dark side of non-classical writing (almost).  I’m very interested to hear our soloist, the German Austrian violinist Benjamin Schmid, tear through this work.

The final work on the program is the Symphony No. 1 by Tchaikovsky “Winter Dreams”.  The work has its charms, though I must confess that my enjoyment of it largely comes from the fact that I’m not playing either the 4th, 5th, or 6th symphonies.  First symphonies are always interesting, however, because (except perhaps for Brahms’) they often may show only hints of the greatness that is to come.  The composer hasn’t already fully worked out his/her individual voice, and especially in transitional passages, the machinery isn’t all humming at full capacity just yet.

young conductors to watch

Alondra de la Parra – Photo: Courtney Perry

The Daily Beast has an article about the current crop of young conductors who are either making it big or, in their opinion, are about to (the headline screams: Young Rock Stars of the Conducting World”).  Some of these conductors have been here in Oregon, and with a couple of exceptions, they were all quite good.  We haven’t seen any of these women here in Oregon, and it would be nice to have a few female conductors here – but for some reason the “buzz” on the women that most critics are hot on is not getting to our front office.  Click here for the article and photos of the chosen ones.

I’ve heard some very good things about another female conductor, the Minnesota Orchestra’s staff conductor, Sarah Hicks, as well.  And I’d be comfortable adding our own Resident Conductor Gregory Vajda to this list as well.

Here’s hoping we see some of these young talents on our podium in the years to come.

And here’s the list for those of you with little time to spare (*= has appeared or will appear with the OSO):

  1. Gustavo Dudamel
  2. Marc Albrecht
  3. Alondra de la Parra
  4. Kazem Abdullah*
  5. James Gaffigan*
  6. Pietari Inkinen* – will appear with the OSO Feb. 2010
  7. Edward Gardner
  8. Michael Christie*
  9. Joana Carniero
  10. Michael Francis
  11. Evan Rogister
  12. Shi-Yeong Sun
  13. Phillipe Jordan
  14. Ilyich Rivas – profile in Atlanta paper

It’s also worth noting, which the Daily Beast did not do, that all of these conductors – with the exceptions of Dudamel and Abdullah – have the same representation, with IMG Artists.  It’s curious, since there are quite a few conductors of similar or greater promise that are represented by other agencies.  I’m hoping, in light of the high journalistic standards to which the Daily Beast aspires, that this was not simply a puff piece instigated by the marketing wing of IMG.  Check out the comments below to see another mistake – concerning who actually conducted the Ring in Seattle this summer (good eye, James!).

lisitsa wows chi-town

Helene Grimaud – will rue the day
Photo: Mat Hennek/DG

Valentina Lisitsa – saved the day
Photo: Iran Issa-Khan

Pianist Helene Grimaud spaced out and learned the wrong Beethoven concerto for her planned CSO appearances this weekend, and Portland favorite Valentina Lisitsa was called in to pinch hit for the Beethoven Emperor Concerto.  Grimaud recently recorded the piece, so I cannot understand how she could possibly think she was playing something else (or have it so out of her fingers that she couldn’t quickly get it into performance shape).  The performances were led by recent OSO guest conductor James Gaffigan.

Here’s an excerpt from the Chicago Sun-Times review:

Lisitsa is known for her manual dexterity and an ability to delineate individual notes in even the most torrential runs. And her filigrees hold our attention. She did not disappoint Saturday night. But she also seemed to take Beethoven’s majesty down a notch so that the elegant slow movement became the work’s musical as well as literal center.

I hope we get Valentina back for some non-Russian repertoire soon, she’s great in the Rachmaninoff/Tchaikovsky rep. with which she’s made her reputation, but I’d love to hear her play Beethoven, too.

post-concert reflections

I’m a little short on time today, but I thought I’d make some observations on the current classical series that we’re finishing tonight in Portland.

First, our guest conductor, James Gaffigan, is really starting to grow on me.  I’m always suspicious of the “wunderkind” conductors, as they rarely live up to their hype.  We had a similarly young guest a few years back that was singularly unimpressive, and that left me a bit gunshy, I admit.  But Gaffigan is very assured, connects very impressively with the audience, and has done a nice job of shaping the works for this series of concerts.  It’s a hard sell for a guest to come in and work over a warhorse like the Firebird, but he did so in a very casual way, almost charming us into doing it with his inflections, and not taking away what we, as an ensemble, brought to the party.

The Rodrigo has been impeccably performed by soloist Eduardo Fernandez, but I kept waiting for more passion in his performances.  He seems almost robotic in his stage presence, but he’s very musical and it’s been a pleasure to have an artist of his caliber on stage with us.  I just wish he’d take the dogs off the leash, so to speak.

Doing the Haydn “Hen” Symphony right after our Mozart 40 performances has been very interesting.  We’re not on such a short leash with Gaffigan, and he wants a slightly less dry style from the strings than did Kalmar in the Mozart.  It’s a very enjoyable symphony to play, and as exposed as the Mozart felt, the Haydn feels even more so – the textures are more spare, the writing perhaps even more economical in terms of orchestration.  It’s a delight to discover this work, however, and with so many uplayed Haydn symphonies to explore, I wish we’d do them more often.

The highlight of the evening for me has been, in a major moment of surprising myself, the Busoni Elegiaic Lullaby.  It’s the sort of piece that doesn’t bowl you over, but it insinuates itself into your being, leaving one feeling changed after it is done.  It’s a shame that there aren’t more Busoni pieces in the orchestral repertoire.

well-charted territory

This week’s subscription concert will, with no sarcasm intended, be delightful for the audience.  What’s not to love?  The most accessible Stravinsky score ever (Firebird Suite – 1919 version), a Haydn Symphony with a cute nickname (The Hen), a perennial top-ten end-of-year radiothon fave in the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, and a bit of downer filler by Busoni.


For the average orchestral drone, however, this is a deathly week to be in the orchestra, because most of us will just explode if we have to play the Firebird one…more…time.  It’s fantastic music – but it’s also used for everything.  Need a bit of fanciful storytelling for a youth concert?  Firebird.  Need some loud music to soothe a restless pops crowd before the headliner comes on?  Firebird.  Guest conductor that needs something flashy?  Firebird.


As for the Rodrigo – I’m pretty much in the same boat.  The balance issues with a guitar soloist are nearly insurmountable without amplification, and at that point I’m wondering why there is even a concerto for an instrument that can’t be heard in a large room with more than 10 people in it without amplification, never mind in a 2700 seat concert hall with a full symphony orchestra playing nearly the entire time.  I’ve never been a Rodrigo fan anyway, so maybe I should just recuse myself from discussing it altogether.  Yes, good idea that…

Haydn is great, I actually like his music more than Mozart’s, especially as a performer, because of his unpredictability and the slight tinge of the peasant that’s always lurking just under the surface (or just plain out in the open) which makes his music much easier to pull off than the perfect supermodel phrases of Mozart.  Haydn’s more like the Kate Moss Amy Winehouse of the 18th century, I think, to Mozart’s Heidi Klum.

Kate Moss/Haydn

Heidi Klum/Mozart

The Busoni’s cool – I can deal with that.