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.