Guest conductor James Gaffigan takes the podium, conducting pianist Ingrid Fliter and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra on March 11 and 13.
Sometimes career advancement comes with a price.
“I’ve slept in my bed maybe 25 times this year,” says James Gaffigan, a much-in-demand guest conductor whose touring schedule has accelerated since ending his positions as associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Gaffigan debuts as a guest conductor with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, leading a reduced ensemble and guest pianist Ingrid Fliter in a program of Haydn and Mozart at Benaroya Hall. (The show repeats on Saturday.)
“I always had a home in Cleveland and San Francisco,” says Gaffigan, on the phone from Indiana, where he is conducting virtuoso pianist Stephen Hough and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. “I would conduct in another city and then come back. But not anymore.”
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Buzz has been building around Gaffigan, 30, since 2004, when he won the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition in Frankfurt, Germany. Besides appearing on podiums in Philadelphia, St. Paul, Chicago, Cincinnati, Houston and St. Louis, he has also worked in Europe with the Munich Philharmonic, Deutsches Symphony Orchestra (Berlin), Tonhalle Orchestra (Zurich), Bournemouth Symphony and many others.
In January of this year, he was named chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, both appointments effective next year.
A New York City native, Gaffigan attended LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, and the Juilliard School Preparatory Division. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, he earned his master’s degree in conducting at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.
Gaffigan laughs when asked about his original plans in music: playing rock and jazz guitar.
“I came late to classical music,” he says. “My father, despite his wages, always got me instruments I wanted and never asked questions. I had a band in high school, and I loved improvisational guitar. Then I fell in love with classical music. There are more rules in it, but my improvisational background now helps me get players thinking outside the box.”
Gaffigan speaks of Fliter with high praise.
“She’s an incredible musician, sultry and exciting,” he says. “I worked with her on a Ravel program three years ago, and I was blown away by her musicality. She knows how to get color and beautiful sound out of a piano.”
Gaffigan is one of a number of guest conductors at Seattle Symphony Orchestra under probable consideration to replace Gerard Schwarz as music director when the latter steps down at the end of next season. He says his new commitments in Lucerne and the Netherlands are firm, but he looks forward to meeting Seattle’s orchestra.
“Seattle is a dream for conductors,” he says. “I love the city. I don’t know much about the orchestra, and chemistry isn’t something you can plan. But would I love to have a great American orchestra? Certainly.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org