Conductor James Gaffigan

Review: Serkin Plays Mozart | Dallas Symphony Orchestra | Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center

Three's a Crowd

The Dallas Symphony uses pianist Peter Serkin and conductor James Gaffigan for an oddball trio of works by Prokofiev, Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov.

published Monday, February 2, 2015

Photo: Kathy Chapman
Conductor Peter Serkin

Dallas — The Dallas Symphony presented a jumbled program on Thursday evening consisting of three works that clashed with each other like characters out of three different media suddenly finding themselves onstage together.

The program opened with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3, music derived from his opera about demonic possession, which eventually explodes into madness in a convent (think of this character as Sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave in the 1971 film The Devils). Next came Peter Serkin’s modestly played Mozart, his Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major (maybe Emma out of the Jane Austen novel). The program ended with Rimsky-Korsakov’s gaudy showpiece Capriccio espagnol (lots of funny possibilities for this one, but let’s go with Mazeppa from Gypsy, because of the trumpet.)

That opening paragraph may be a somewhat silly diversion, but the oddness of the program gave the concert a patched-together feel, like a radio playlist. That aside, all of the music was quite well played and conducted.

Photo: Franca Pedrazzetti
Conductor James Gaffigan

Prokofiev’s third symphony came from his ballet The Fiery Angels. Although Prokofiev later claimed this music was originally conceived as a symphony and was adapted for the opera, it is difficult not to associate this wild piece with the story of evil angels, witchcraft and finally mass hysteria.

This symphony is rarely heard but that appears to be changing. It is turning up here and there on programs conducted by super stars such as Claudio Abbado. Thus, it is a good piece for guest conductor James Gaffigan.

He may not be on that rarified level yet, but his trajectory is obvious and only a major disaster could derail it. Reviews of his last two appearances with the DSO, with more intriguingly constructed programs, are here and here.

Right from the dramatic onslaught that starts the symphony, Gaffigan was a study in precision and control. He caught the rough-and-tumble nature of Prokofiev’s highly concentrated and dense score. In his hands, the symphony felt less episodic, cobbled together, and more like a traditionally organized four-movement symphony (which it is).

If the performance sat at top volume for long stretches of time, the composer has to accept at least half of the blame. But it is up to the conductor to save something for those super big moments. For example, in the first movement, after at least a dozen pages of fortissimo, Prokofiev writes four measures of triple forte. This really didn’t come across. 

The soloist for the Mozart concerto is the justifiably renowned pianist Peter Serkin. Tall and lanky, he sits ramrod-straight at the keyboard that just barely clears his knees. He gives an impression of aristocratic bearing and a reserved form of assurance. Listening to his modest and thoughtful performance, we were mindful of his interest in playing on historically correct instruments, such as the less forthright fortepiano.

Even though this concerto predates The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart’s operatic leanings are apparent and Serkin spun out some beautifully shaped phrases, even if his singing along was distracting. There were times when the orchestra covered him and, even though there are long stretches in which the piano is in a subservient role, we still need to hear it.

The program closed with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, a brightly colored and sparkly sequined showpiece for a large orchestra. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a treatise on orchestration that is still a valuable resource for composers and this piece is illustrative of his theories and his approach to the orchestra. It is on everyone’s list of magnificently orchestrated works and his creative use of all the instruments still amazes no matter how many times you hear it.

Famously, Rimsky-Korsakov made the distinction that it was not “brilliantly orchestrated” but “brilliantly written” for orchestra, if he does say so himself in his book. I agree.

One of the best parts of this piece is that it gives most of the solo chairs in the DSO moments to step forward. On Thursday, they all impressed all over again. Even though many frequent concertgoers might have groaned a little thinking of an other trip through this bright, shiny quartet of a piece, as soon as it begins your enjoyment of its treasures makes you glad to be hearing it—especially when it was so well played and conducted.

Now on to another topic: contemporary conductor training.

Gaffigan, who is in his mid-30s (born in 1979), exudes an almost visible and vibrating energy field suffused with confidence. He also is an example of the way conductors are trained these days, although he wears the results better than most.

The historical career path, up through the opera house with ever increasing responsibilities, has vanished. Each of those stepping-stone positions has become a permanent job where those who would conduct are permanently parked. That gone, these days the path for aspiring conductors is up through universities, gathering more and more advanced degrees on the way.

Gaffigan has degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music and Houston’s Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston. He also garnered the de rigueur fellowships at Aspen and Tanglewood, as well as impressive assistantships with major orchestras, including Cleveland and San Francisco. A competition prize is the cherry on top, and Gaffigan’s is the first prize from the 2004 Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition.

Part of the reason that he is more that the product of his training is the fact that he recently began to conduct some opera, in addition to his exceptional talent. Even though that traditional path is closed, it is in the crucible of the opera pit that a conductor really learns the trade and develops, hopefully, a unique style. 

Gaffigan’s beat pattern moves from the shoulder, with his elbow at a 90-degree angle. This has the effect of keeping the frame (as far as you can reach in every direction) contained to a tight square in front of his body. When he does let loose with a big gesture, it is all the more effective.

He has good independence of his hands and gives his left hand most of the expressive duties. On the downside, he spends a lot of time bent over at the waist. While this gives the impression of involvement, as if he is reaching out to be a physical part of the orchestra, it takes away from the authority that standing upright conveys.

The entire Gaffigan package is extremely impressive and backed up by a fine musical sense and careful understanding of the score. As his career progresses, he has all the intellectual and innate musical skills that will allow him to continue differentiating himself from the rest of his peers and fulfill all the glowing predictions that are lavished on him. Thanks For Reading

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Three's a Crowd
The Dallas Symphony uses pianist Peter Serkin and conductor James Gaffigan for an oddball trio of works by Prokofiev, Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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