A Balance Paying Off: James Gaffigan finds an Island in Lucerne

By Kyle MacMillan

The oft-quoted New Testament adage about prophets struggling for credibility in their own countries certainly seems to apply to American conductors. While some noted ones like James Levine and Marin Alsop have built their careers largely in the United States, others have had to make their marks in Europe before they could land a major post in their home country. Examples include David Zinman, who served as principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic prior to becoming music director of the Baltimore Symphony in 1985, and Alan Gilbert, who was principal conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in advance of taking over as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2009.

James Gaffigan, one of the most promising of this country’s up-and-coming maestros (who just weeks ago turned 38), has followed this latter path, but the New York native didn’t entirely plan it that way. Zinman, who was his main teacher at the famed American Academy of Conducting at the Aspen Music Festival and School during 2000–3, advised him to go to Europe, a suggestion that he found a bit outlandish at the time. “I can’t just show up in Berlin and say, ‘I want to conduct,’ ” he remembers thinking. But in the end, Europe was exactly where he found himself.

After stints as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, he took over as chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra in 2011 and recently gained a contract extension there that takes him through 2022. Along with principal guest conductor posts with two other European ensembles, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, Gaffigan has done a significant amount of work in opera, including several summers at England’s Glyndebourne Festival. “I [ended up having] the opportunity to go to Europe,” Gaffigan continues. “It actually happened, and it was the greatest thing for my life, for my career, and for everything—my mentality about music.”

Chicago-area audiences will have a chance to hear the fruits of the conductor’s labors with the Lucerne Symphony when he brings the orchestra to Ravinia for concerts on August 22 and 23. Although the orchestra has traveled to many other parts of the world, including three tours to Asia and an extensive tour of South America, these appearances will be its first in the United States. Gaffigan says the orchestra had the opportunity to undertake a longer itinerary but opted to focus its energy on Ravinia and plan “the great American tour” some time later. “We were excited by it,” he says, “because we thought: This is an American debut and we’re doing more than one performance; it’s going to be very important for us as a kind of overture to what’s yet to come.”

For the pair of concerts—facilitated by the friendship of Ravinia president and CEO Welz Kauffman and Lucerne Symphony intendant Numa Bischoff Ullmann born of their time as trustees of the Rachmaninoff Foundation—the orchestra specifically chose repertoire connected to its Swiss home. The overture to Rossini’s William Tell (set at Lake Lucerne) and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 highlight the August 22 program, which also features InMo Yang, a protégé of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute Piano and Strings Program director Miriam Fried, as soloist in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and music from Lucerne residents Wagner and Rachmaninoff, respectively Siegfried Idyll and Piano Concerto No. 2 (performed by Behzod Abduraimov) marks August 23, along with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. “It’s standard repertoire,” Gaffigan says, “but it shows the orchestra in different styles of what we do well, and then we can expand on that into the future.”

Early in his career, Gaffigan was offered three music director posts in the United States, but none were compelling to him. “I thought they were great orchestras, and they had great potential, but didn’t check all of the boxes. There was something missing,” he says. Meanwhile, Europe began to cast a spell on him. He traveled to the famed Lucerne Festival several times with the Cleveland Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. During one of those visits in 2006 or ’07, he met the intendant (roughly equivalent to artistic director) of the Lucerne Symphony, who suggested that Gaffigan should return and conduct that orchestra some time. Gaffigan didn’t even know Lucerne had its own orchestra at the time, but he graciously expressed his vague assent.

In 2008, his manager got a phone call from the Lucerne Symphony asking if Gaffigan could step in for a conductor who had to cancel. The timing worked out, because he had a free week between appearances in Salzburg and Cologne, and the program contained works by Rachmaninoff and Grieg that he knew well. “From the first reading of the rehearsal,” Gaffigan says, “I knew there was something very special about the orchestra and the way they listened and communicated with one another.”

He returned to Lucerne a year later and, at his own request, conducted an all-Mozart program—to Gaffigan, that composer’s music is ideal for revealing if there is true chemistry between a conductor and an orchestra because there is no place to hide. Again, he clicked with the musicians. “I knew this was right,” Gaffigan says. Lucerne officials traveled to some of his engagements with other orchestras and, in January 2010, satisfied with what they had seen and heard, named Gaffigan the orchestra’s next chief conductor. “It was clear that there was so much potential,” the conductor says, “and I knew that this could become possibly the best orchestra in Switzerland.”

Before he accepted the post, though, Gaffigan says he was cautioned by Zinman and two other mentors—Franz Welser-
Möst and Michael Tilson Thomas, respectively the music directors of the Cleveland Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony. They were concerned about the possibility of him and the symphony being shown up by the many world-class orchestras that regularly appear at the Lucerne Festival during the summer. “I treated that as a great challenge,” Gaffigan says. “I said, ‘That’s true, and all the more reason to have a great product all year round and not just in the summer.’ And throughout the six years I’ve been there it’s developed into something extremely special.”

Under Gaffigan, the orchestra has increased its international touring and recorded several albums on the prestigious harmonia mundi label, including discs devoted to the music of contemporary composers Henri Dutilleux and Wolfgang Rihm. At the same time, it has upgraded the quality of its players with some key hires and attracted such hard-to-book soloists as Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimerman. “It was the oldest orchestra in Switzerland,” the conductor says, “but it’s always been a kind of second-tier orchestra. And, now, all of sudden, we’re on the map.”

Although he resides in Lucerne and spends a significant portion of each year in European concert halls and opera houses, Gaffigan still returns regularly to the United States, where he has led many of the country’s top ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is also set to make his Lyric Opera of Chicago debut in 2018 with a production of Così fan tutte. “I told my management from the very beginning,” he says, “that the priority for me is not how many operas or symphonic concerts I do, but it’s that there always needs to be a balance between the United States and Europe, and we’ve kept it that way.”

Because of his regular work on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Gaffigan has been able to discern some of the differences between European and American orchestras, which he believes are not so much about the sound of the ensembles but the mentality of the musicians. (He contends that just a handful of orchestras in world still possess a definable, distinctive sound, such as the Czech and Vienna Philharmonics.)

He thinks American orchestras are concerned about a sense of ensemble and playing in as clean and precise manner as possible. If there is an important transition in the score, they want to know how it is going to be executed and how the conductor is going to signal it. “They need to know specifics,” he says. But in Europe, too much attention to such specifics can backfire. He recalls a rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic in which he was intent on controlling a certain moment in an opera. “During a break, the concertmaster took me aside and said, ‘Show us where we’re going to. Don’t show us where to be.’ And that was the biggest life lesson for me of conducting a European orchestra.” Or put differently, the kind of exacting downbeat that American orchestras like is not so important for their European counterparts, who are more keen on listening to each other. “And, so, there is a big difference,” Gaffigan says. “I would say that the in-between-the-notes is more interesting to Europeans and the notes themselves are more interesting to American orchestras.”

Another difference, the conductor says, is the way orchestras rehearse. In the United States, musicians show up completely prepared, and the first read-through is almost good enough for a recording. “But they’re playing like, ‘Okay, we’re saving for the concert. Don’t worry, in the concert, we’re going to go crazy,’ ” Gaffigan says. In Europe, the first rehearsal is not so clean, but the musicians play with greater intensity. “It’s like they are living on the edge at every rehearsal,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s too much.” He once asked one of the older musicians in the Munich Philharmonic why they exert themselves so much. “His response was, ‘What if I get hit by a bus after the rehearsal? That’s the last time I play Don Juan.”

As an American working much of the time in Europe, Gaffigan believes he has found a healthy balance between the two approaches. “I think there are great things to both,” he says, “and I think it is possible to meet somewhere in the middle, and I think Lucerne accomplished that in a short period of time, because of our understanding together of what I expect from them in terms of preparation and the rehearsal process.”

What’s next for Gaffigan? Following in the footsteps of some of his older American colleagues, he suspects his next post will be in the United States. It doesn’t hurt that he was described in January 2016 by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini as someone who would have been among the “heartening left-field picks” for the then-just-filled position of music director of the New York Philharmonic. “But there are many things floating around right now,” Gaffigan says, “and I still don’t have a gut feeling one way or another to one organization or another. But I do feel as an American that I love the country and I love the orchestras. All the orchestras I conduct in America I really like.”

If he had his druthers, Gaffigan would be simultaneously the artistic leader of both an American and a European orchestra, something that respected fellow American Leonard Slatkin did in recent years with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre National de Lyon in France. “They would be my islands,” he says, “and I would guest conduct a lot less, because guest conducting is always fun, but it’s like having an exciting affair. It’s always going to be fun, but, in fact, the marriage and the real relationship is where things develop. It’s very easy to be a hero as a guest conductor, but as a chief conductor or music director, your strengths and weaknesses are seen under a microscope and you have to deal with them in the right way.”


Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.