Like his contemporary Gustavo Dudamel, James Gaffigan is part of a young generation of conductors known for two things: the energy they bring to their performances — no doubt a product of the fact they grew up listening to rock music — and their apparent inability to stand still on the podium.
“The generation before us was told, ‘Don’t move too much. [You’ll look like you’re trying to imitate] Leonard Bernstein,’” Gaffigan said in a recent interview. “And it’s true that you can’t do it for show.
“But dancing and conducting are so close! I think we [younger conductors] feel more comfortable in our bodies. When you feel the rhythm as strongly as I feel it, or Gustavo feels it, we can’t help but move.”
For the third summer in a row, Gaffigan, 34, is bringing his aesthetically inspiring aerobic workout regimen to the Music Academy of the West. Tuesday night at the Lobero Theatre, he will lead a faculty ensemble in a scaled-down version of a Mahler symphony. Then, on August 1 and 3 at the Granada Theatre, he will conduct a fully staged production of Bizet’s Carmen.
“People think of Carmen as a ‘popular opera,’ but it’s actually one of the most intricate, well-structured pieces of music ever written,” he said. “It’s perfection, basically — not only pretty melodies but also deep psychological drama. It’s a piece for every type of listener. Everyone is attracted to this music.”
Mahler, in contrast, tends to be more of an acquired taste. Indeed, if your introduction to the piece was the late Lorin Maazel’s slow, ponderous performance with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Arlington Theatre earlier this year, you could easily conclude it’s not to your liking. But Gaffigan’s interpretation will show the work in a very different light.
For one thing, he’s using a version of the symphony for 15 players. Created by Klaus Simon in 2007, “this version is actually an update of a version done by Arnold Schönberg and his student Erwin Stein in 1919 or so,” reports the Music Academy’s Patrick Posey.
In those days — really up until the 1960s, when he was championed by the aforementioned Leonard Bernstein — Mahler was considered too strange and modern to be performed by symphony orchestras. Schönberg created several such reductions for private musical performance in Vienna, with the idea that, this way, the music could at least be heard.
“We’ll all miss the big sound [of a full orchestra] at times, such as the climax at the end of the third movement,” Gaffigan conceded. “But some things will be more crisp, more exciting. This will make his harmonies crystal clear.”
The subject made him nostalgic. “I remember listening to [this work] for the first time in my parents’ living room in New York City,” he said. “I was sitting with the score. I couldn’t believe it. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. It still hits me like that today! It excites me so much.”
Gaffigan’s family probably didn’t know what to make of his obsession; neither of his parents was musical. “There was a piano in the house because my mother, at some point, had tried unsuccessfully to teach herself,” he said. “I gravitated towards it around age 5 or 6. I would sit down and play something. I eventually figured out that a triad sounded nice and that it sounded sad if I made that E to the black note before it.”
He picked up the guitar around 9 or 10 and had a “basement band” in his early teens. In junior high school, a band teacher suggested he take up the bassoon, and he eventually enrolled at the New England Conservatory to study the instrument.
“I always loved scores,” he recalled. “The Metropolitan Opera library was across the street from my high school — LaGuardia High School for music and the arts. All my high school friends would cut school to go to Central Park and smoke weed; I would go to the library to listen to Wagner. That was a sign that this stuff made me really happy. This music spoke to me somehow.”
Nevertheless, Gaffigan quickly found himself frustrated in college. “The [bassoon] repertoire is so limited!” he said. “I knew basically from freshman year that I needed to conduct, so I’d go to all the Boston Symphony rehearsals and meet the guest conductors backstage. All of them were very kind to me. I was eventually encouraged to audition to this new conducting academy at Aspen, and I got in.”
There, he was mentored by conductor David Zinman. He spent three years with the Cleveland Orchestra and three years with the San Francisco Symphony before getting a dream job: music director of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland. “We’re doing more and more touring and recording. It’s exciting,” he said.
For all his success in Europe, however, Gaffigan loves returning to the U.S. — especially the Aspen festival and the Music Academy. “I love how intimate it is in Santa Barbara,” he said. “The people who come to the concerts and master classes play such a crucial role. I’m always seeing familiar faces.”
James Gaffigan conducts Tuesdays at 8 at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Tuesday, July 22, at 8 p.m. For ticket information, call (805) 969-8787 or visit musicacademy.org.