PostHeaderIcon American-born Conductor On the Rise

James Gaffigan, who is currently leading a thrilling production of Mozart’s comic “Cosi Fan Tutte” at Lyric Opera, is one of the fastest-rising conductors on the music scene. Yet, he claims to be in no hurry to move to the next level. He is enjoying all that he has right now, including the accolades.


James Gaffigan

His conducting career got a major boost when he won the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition in 2004 at age 25. He is now 38. Early on, he held plum assignments with the Cleveland Orchestra and as associate conductor with the San Francisco Symphony from 2006-09. “From the beginning, I was lucky to have people protecting me. I had very big offers that I had no reason accepting”.  Music insiders protected him from talent scouts and agents looking for new talent. He was determined not be a flash in the pan. He credits David Zinman, head of the Aspen Music Festival where he went at age 19. Another was the Cleveland Orchestra’s Bill Preucil, who offered musical advice, “You don’t need to subdivide this (passage). Just trust us here and we’ll do it.”

Lucerne Symphony Orchestra

Lucerne Symphony Orchestra

Gaffigan has led the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra since 2010 (the initial chemistry was like “a great first date”) and raised its recording and touring profile substantially. He has built the orchestra up into a respected ensemble that has toured Europe, Asia and South America. “Something in my gut told me I had to go to Europe. I learned so much in Vienna and Berlin.” He has guest-conducted all the major European ensembles and finds the distinct orchestral sound and culture of the Vienna Philharmonic, London and Czech Philharmonics, Orchestre de Paris and others fascinating.

Gaffigan is equally at home in the pit. He made his opera debut with the Zurich Opera in 2005 conducting “La Boheme”. He has since conducted at the Vienna State Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera and at Glyndebourne in England. “Cosi” is his debut appearance at Lyric. The part about conducting opera that he likes best, surprisingly, is being out of sight in the pit. “No one can see me. I don’t want to be in control but simply want to work with the singers so they can do their best.” He offers high praise for the two female leads in “Cosi”, Ana Maria Martinez and Marianne Crebassa.

However, on the concert podium, a conductor must exert control and Gaffigan does. “I’m very controlling in early rehearsals. There, I know what I want and I aim for that high standard of ensemble and sound.” In performance, he lets the musicians play. He names Michael Tilson Thomas, leader of the San Francisco Symphony, as a key musical influence. “We think about music quite differently. But he’s a genius, a Renaissance person. He’s so well-read and someone with an amazing imagination.”

Gaffigan recalls the time MTT introduced him to his publicist and career confidante, Margaret Carson. Tilson Thomas told Ms. Carson that this young man was “the only real deal there is.” She looked up and asked his name. Gaffigan replied, “James”. And your last name, Carson asked. When he told her,”Gaffigan”, she said, “change it”. He laughed in the retelling and did not take her advice.

Gaffigan is destined to head a major American orchestra within the next five years. He is high on the candidate list that all orchestra managers keep. Now is a uniquely propitious moment in which many top orchestras are playing high-stakes musical chairs. The post in San Francisco opens up in 2020 with a traffic jam developing in 2022 among Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Which will Gaffigan choose? He won’t say but finds the whole exercise amusing. “They all assume I will readily say “Yes” if they say they want me. What they forget to consider is ‘What might I want’ “. Such considerations as family, personal goals, the chemistry between him and the orchestra president and especially the musicians are Gaffigan’s priorities. That fateful decision is a few years away. In the meantime, he seems to be having the time of his life.

Gaffigan will lead three more performances of “Cosi Fan Tutte” through March 16. Hurry to catch the next performance this Thursday evening. For tickets and information, go to



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