The Plain Dealer: October 11, 2006

Would he or wouldn’t he?
The question was on the lips of many Cleveland concertgoers last season when James Gaffigan, then an assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, was named associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, to start last month. Would Gaffigan, in other words, continue as music director of CityMusic Cleveland, the tip-top chamber orchestra that gives free concerts throughout the area?

Despite the impending move westward, the conductor made sure that his duties in San Francisco would give him time to lead at least several programs per season in Cleveland. With Gaffigan on the podium, CityMusic begins its third season tonight with a program of beloved works by Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Rossini and Schubert.

On the phone from his new San Francisco digs, Gaffigan calls CityMusic “such a break from reality. I do love guest conducting, but I always feel guest conducting, you’re in and you’re out. Just when you begin to have a relationship with an orchestra, you leave on Sunday.”

Gaffigan, 27, made a big impact in Cleveland during his three seasons at Severance Hall, when he also began focusing his energy and smarts on CityMusic Cleveland. The latter ensemble brings classical music to listeners who otherwise would not have access to a cherishable repertoire.

To ensure quality, Gaffigan has insisted that CityMusic’s players, who are part of a small pool of excellent free-lancers, take part in every concert during the season.

“That’s very important for me,” he says. “They know what my expectations are. It’s such a pleasure. I’ve been looking forward to this week for a very long time.”

Not that Gaffigan had a lot of time for pondering upon leaving Cleveland in August.

He traveled to London to hear concerts. He led two programs with the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich, Switzerland, and met up with the San Francisco Symphony in Luxembourg and Lucerne, Switzerland, where the ensemble and music director Michael Tilson Thomas ended the Lucerne Festival with Mahler’s enormous Symphony No. 8 (“The audience just went nuts,” Gaffigan says).

Since arriving in San Francisco last month, Gaffigan has had more time for reading and studying. He’ll have no podium encounters with the San Francisco Symphony until December, when he will lead New Year’s programs. He will conduct a subscription program in the spring and will preside over his first festival with the orchestra in June.

But Gaffigan’s datebook is bulging with engagements elsewhere. He will make his Berlin debut next week with the German Symphony Orchestra at the Philharmonie, home of the celebrated Berlin Philharmonic. In early 2007, he will take the Leipzig Radio Orchestra to Spain and will lead his first performance of a Bruckner symphony (No. 6) with the Frankfurt Museum Orchestra, which he led several years ago when he was a first-place winner in the Solti conducting competition.

Back stateside, Gaffigan will conduct the Rochester Philharmonic in New York and the Columbus Symphony and make his New York Philharmonic debut leading Young People’s Concerts.

“I’ve got a lot on my plate,” he says.

His CityMusic plate is certainly full. Gaffigan says programming CityMusic concerts is so exciting that he keeps changing the works, though this season’s music appears to be locked in place.

His opening menu this week has a dark first half consisting of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” overture and Sibelius’ “Pelleas and Melisande.” Things lighten up considerably in Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers” overture and Schubert’s Symphony No. 3.

Gaffigan’s December CityMusic program will field “bite-sized morsels,” he says, such as Faure’s “Pavane,” Sibelius’ “Valse triste,” Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, four movements from Berlioz’s “Les nuits d’ete” (with mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck), Delius’ “Summer Night on a River,” Ravel’s “Le tombeau de Couperin” and solo works by Ravel and Blechinger for CityMusic violinist Liana Gourdjia and bassoonist George Sakakeeny.

For the February CityMusic concerts, Gaffigan has invited Danail Rachev, assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony, to do the honors. Mendelssohn’s “Fair Melusine” overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 will flank Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major, with Matt Haimovitz leading from the cello.

The season finale in the spring, again with Gaffigan, will comprise Stravinsky’s “Danses Concertantes,” a new violin concerto by Cleveland’s Margaret Brouwer (featuring concertmaster Michi Wiancko) and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39.

As he juggles programs for CityMusic’s coming seasons, Gaffigan remains grateful that he’s able to maintain Cleveland ties.

“It’s a much different vibe here,” he says of San Francisco. “I like it very much. I will miss the Cleveland Orchestra always and especially the people in the orchestra. But I’m learning so much about music from Michael [Tilson Thomas]. His overall connection with the audience is something he does the best.

“It’s been very good training for me to be in Cleveland because I’ll always have the Cleveland sound in the back of my head.”

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:
Donald Rosenberg, Plain Dealer Music Critic

© 2006 The Plain Dealer
© 2006 cleveland.com All Rights Reserved.

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CityMusic Cleveland is a professional chamber orchestra that performs free concerts throughout Northeast Ohio,often accompanied by exhibits of local artwork.

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