Interview: James Gaffigan

We catch up with James Gaffigan, the New Yorker currently serving as Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, after the first rehearsal ahead of his LSO debut on Thursday 13 February. He talks to us about the thrills and spills of being an international conductor, his first impressions of the LSO and electrifying star pianist Yuja Wang.

So James, tell us your story. How did you get in to conducting?

Well, I didn't come from musical family, but there was a piano in the house. I always gravitated towards the piano and tried writing tunes, and one day my parents thought to send me to music school, so of course learned how to read music and really started playing instruments, many instruments – clarinet, bassoon, and I was a guitarist also.

But it was at a relatively late age that I really started loving classical music – at least compared to, say, violinists, who start when they’re 4 years old. I remember playing in an orchestra for the first time and being fascinated with string players and how they all moved together and breathed together, but basically I didn't really enjoy being a small piece of the puzzle, and I wanted to learn more. For me, the scores of the music were so fascinating, it was as if they unlocked all the secrets, and I found myself skipping school to go to the library. Most people skip school to go to the central park or something or to go have fun with their friends or whatever, but I would skip school to go to the library and listen to things. I was just so moved by this music, especially Wagner and things like that. I wasn't such a weird kid, I had a normal life and a normal social life, but again these scores were so cool to me… and then it became clear that that's what I wanted to do.

Then, people like David Zinman gave me a lot of support and invited me at a very young age to conduct at the Aspen Music School and the American Academy of Conducting and Tanglewood. It happened very quickly, but in a way it was good that it happened when it did because I was young and naive enough to not be nervous for these very big things. So I'm grateful, because if I started now, at age 34, I think that the nerves would get the best of me.

Where there people who you were guided by in coming to conducting? Where there conductors you particularly looked up to or who you idolised?

There were many people who I admired very much – which is not to say I wanted to be like them – but I admired them very much. I admire all the different personalities of conducting. Of course every conductor will say Carlos Kleiber because of his fantasy and his imagination, and Karajan had a beautiful concept of sound which I really respect. And then there were the people I knew: Franz Welser-Möst, Michael Tilson Thomas, two very opposite people who were both extremely inspiring for me. David Zinman was around from my early days and he helped with the physicality and the basic knowledge of scores, which was really important too.

It’s a very demanding career, of course, being a conductor. It can probably become quite lonely at times…

It has extremities. I think it's dangerous for certain personalities, because you go from being with people like a family, breathing with all these musicians, making music, laughing, and thousands of people applauding you… then you go back to the hotel room alone, and it can be a little bit weird. I think that's why people get into trouble, especially actors – people who travel a lot, basically – because it's easy to get involved with bad stuff, whether its alcohol or women or men or whatever... It's very easy to be sucked in to that very dangerous world. I think I have a good balance of family and friends, and I think that's the most important thing, having people that are there for you. In the end you need people you can trust. You need friends you can trust, people who can tell you something’s good, and when something's not great, and when you need to take a break.

So a degree of stability is key. What about other personality requirements? Is there an ‘x-factor’ required to be a great conductor?

It’s about leadership skills. In the heat of the moment, when you take a risk you need everyone to go with you, and if you look like you don't know what you’re doing, or if youre not convincing enough, forget it. You’ve lost the orchestra. It’s usually the people that inspire the orchestra who make the best conductors. Of course you need clarity, but you also need imagination and fantasy. I think that's the most important thing in conducting. Because these people have to play so much repertoire – I can't believe the LSO’s schedule, I mean the average American orchestra would just think it’s crazy, I have so much respect for what they do and the amount of repertoire they take on – it’s easy to get in a rut and for it be ‘business is usual’, you know ? That’s our job: to wake people up and inspire them in the moment, and make them realise why they fell in love with music in the first place.

You mentioned earlier that you came relatively late to classical music, and I think I’ve read elsewhere that you started out wanting to be a rock or jazz guitarist. Do you think that broader musical background is an advantage?

Absolutely. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I came to music without reading music, and I think that’s essential to my concept of harmony. I think I think about harmony in a much more free way than your average classical musician does, maybe, because when most classical musicians study there are so many rules! It’s constantly rules, and there’s very little improvisation – what’s on the page, you play. But I think the best musicians have incredible fantasy, they think outside the box. The notes on the page can only tell you so much – you need to have imagination. I think playing jazz guitar especially was a big help, and it gave a lot of freedom to the way I think about music. I don't regret leaving it though. I think jazz is great and it's an incredible art form, but it doesn’t move me in the way that, say, Bruckner or Schubert does.

Does your jazz background also have an influence on your programming? Do you find yourself leaning towards more eclectic, ‘spicier’ repertoire?

Programming is always fascinating to me. It’s an art in itself to keep the audience interested and diverse. A predictable programme is so boring, I think. So, I like to throw a little curveball once in a while. For example, I love the combination of Schoenberg and Gershwin, which I’ll be doing with the BBC [Symphony Orchestra] next year. These two men they loved each other, they admired each other, and they’re worlds apart musically. But they believed in the same thing; it’s just a different language, and I love combining them. I think that’s fun.

I also think that if you do have something challenging on a programme, something for which the audience is out of their comfort zone, you should reward them with something else on the programme. That’s a golden rule. If you're going to do some crazy commission which is hard on the listeners’ ears, they need to be rewarded with a Beethoven symphony or some Mozart or something to cleanse the palette. I love new music, but I think it needs to be balanced somehow. It needs context. I believe in context. One piece inspires another piece, and you hear it in a different light. I really like that.

You mentioned that very interesting Gershwin & Schoenberg programme. Are there any other particular highlights that you are looking forward to at the moment?

Oh yeah. There are so many… at the moment I'm recording all the Prokofiev symphonies with Netherlands Radio [Philharmonic] and that’s a really exciting project. In Amsterdam I'm also doing Rusalka in concert, which I think is a masterpiece of Dvořák, it’s incredible. There are so many highlights; I don't know where to begin! There's really good stuff coming up. I’m very lucky.

And of course, Thursday’s programme – give us your thoughts.

So, we have bookends of French repertoire, very famous pieces, but the first suite from Daphnis & Chloé nobody really knows. It's a little bit weird, and there's a reason it's not often performed - not much happens, it's very atmospheric, sometimes it’s just setting the tone, but I think it will work very well. In the Prokofiev piano concerto – of course, being a Russian composer – there’s a lot of brutality, but also atmospheric music. It’s a masterpiece; it’s a virtuosic piece for the piano and I think we have one of the best people in the world playing it. [Yuja Wang] owns this piece, she is the real deal. It’s amazing what he does with this piece! It’s so hard, so many notes and it requires a lot of style and confidence, and she’s got it. I think bookended by French repertoire it's going to work perfectly: the Debussy of course has moments of intensity, but it’s a very atmospheric piece, it’s a very transparent piece with gorgeous colour, and then the Prokofiev is really muscular. It's nice to have it in between all of this French music.

Tell us about Yuja Wang – there’s such a buzz around her at the moment. What’s she like to work with?

She’s great. This is my first time working with her. We've met many times at parties and things and at the same festivals, but this is the first time working with her. I like that she has a personality, I like that she creates scandal sometimes with what she wears, but I think the greatest thing about her is that it never outshines her piano playing. For me that’s the biggest priority, and I think that it’s something that’s very hard for young female artists to do. Nicola Benedetti is another one, people just want here to be a pretty face, but in fact she’s extremely talented and she has a lot to say on her instrument. Yuja’s the same way; it's very easy to fall into the rhetoric of ‘oh, she gets hired because she's hot’. No. Yuja, besides being a beautiful and confident woman, is an artist. She's a really top level artist.

Can you sum up your first impressions of working with the LSO?

I was really worried and intimidated to meet them... I've been to London before, with the London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony and OAE, but this is my first time with the LSO. I’ve seen them on TV so much, and I’ve seen them on the internet and on tour with Gergiev, so it was really crazy to see all these familiar faces and you know they’re amazing. Of course they have an amazing reputation, and Michael Tilson Thomas, who hired me at San Francisco, he of course works here a lot and he's always bragging about how wonderful the LSO is. So I was really nervous but excited and yeah, of course they live up to their reputation. And they're wonderful people. They can do anything, this orchestra. It's a privilege to be able to work with them and to be able to rehearse with them. So I'm excited for the concert on Thursday.