You have been a regular visitor to Australia in recent years. What brings you back, the orchestras or the place (or both)?

Australia was always an exotic place to me as an American, since it was so far away. My first time to Sydney proved that it was an incredible place, not just because of the quality of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra but because of the overall scope of the city: the culture, the botanical gardens, the extraordinary nature around Sydney and not to mention the quality of the food in the city! It’s always a pleasure to return and continue to explore. This time, I’ve been in Melbourne, which is also remarkable with a huge amount to offer – very different from Sydney. Overall, it’s the beautiful landscape paired with very high-level musicians that keeps me coming back to Australia.

James Gaffigan. Photo © Daniela Kienzler

Many of your reviews cite your physical conducting style as a particular feature of your interpretations. Who did you study with and was there any point at which you thought you’d ‘go your own way’?

I think conducting technique is a very strange thing; it’s like teaching a painter how to paint. We all come up with our own styles, not even consciously but whatever works for our physicality or our body type. Of course, there are conductors I have admired and I’ve watched their rehearsals, I’ve watched videos of them, many things as a student but the fact of the matter is that we have to develop at our own pace. So, I wouldn’t say that there was one teacher that was responsible for my conducting technique, I just do what I think is necessary in the moment with the orchestra at hand. So, from me it’s never a conscious effort to think about what I am going to do physically in this moment, it just happens and whether to use a baton or not, that’s not something I think about. I just think it’s very strange to be holding a stick and waving at someone in a very intimate moment, so sometimes I put the baton down or I don’t use the baton in the intimate moments or those quiet moments that require quiet gestures so I wouldn’t really give anyone credit for anything except to say I’ve learned from every conductor I’ve ever seen, I’ve learned something and I’ve had great teachers but I wouldn’t say they’ve [influenced] my physicality.

Do you subscribe to any particular philosophy on the podium or is it all about communicating with the orchestra?

My only philosophy on the podium is getting people to do their best as a group and it’s a lot like coaching a great soccer team or football team or basketball team. I have all of these talented people in front of me and I’m communicating something to them and bringing them all together in the quickest way possible. You have all these different ideas, different interpretations of a piece of music and somehow, we need to agree on one and so I would guess the philosophy of being a conductor is facilitating the composer’s wishes in the best sense to the public. My job is to physically communicate that with gestures and also with words in the rehearsal process, so working together with these incredible musicians and moulding them in some kind of cohesive way in which everyone agrees on an interpretation. I think communicating music is, of course, important but bringing people together and getting people to move together and breathe together is a beautiful job. I love my job, but it’s hard to put into words what it is we do up there but at the end of the day it’s bringing people together and whatever language they speak or whatever place they’re from somehow we’re all coming together and doing the same piece of music in a very united fashion. 

You’ve been quoted as suggesting the age of the old-school maestro is over. What do you mean by that, and how do you try to act towards other musicians as a conductor?

I do think the days of the maestro are over for many reasons. I think conductors today should be on the same level as the other musicians. Of course, we have a certain amount of authority but it’s just an organising factor, there needs to be someone keeping track of everything happening otherwise there’d be chaos.  So, I believe in sharing my ideas on the podium with the musicians and I also believe in compromising and I think that the conductors of the past had no interest in compromising – it was more like a dictatorship – and those days are over. Singers are incredible musicians who sometimes cannot do exactly what you envision (a tempo or even a piece), it totally depends on their voice, it depends on how the voice spins and the same thing holds true for soloists, for a violinist, or cellist, or a pianist, they feel something a certain way and it’s our job as conductors to make them feel as comfortable as possible while maintaining musical integrity and doing justice to the composer. So I think there are many factors to being a conductor, to being a leader, and it’s not just the homework you do beforehand or your vision of the piece, it has to do with human beings and how you adjust to them and help them so I think the finished product has a lot more to do with people than an interpretation.

Photo © Vera Hartmann

You perform a wide repertoire of music, but do you naturally gravitate towards particular periods or particular composers?

I love a lot of different styles of music and a lot of different composers and it changes year to year. Some years are Bruckner-heavy, some are Mahler-heavy or Mozart-heavy but there’s so much great music out there and then depending on the orchestra I’m conducting and the relationship I have with them, the repertoire changes. At the end of the day, I always love the music of Mozart, whether it’s symphonic or operatic but I also love the music of Bach as a listener, not just as a conductor, Schubert, Debussy, Strauss, Wagner, there is just so much out there – it just depends on the mood I’m in, or the piece that fascinates me at the moment, so it changes year to year, month to month, week to week, day to day. I could honestly say that the music of Mozart, Haydn and Bach is the purest form of musical expression and I always tend to come back to that.

Is there any music that leaves you relatively (or absolutely) cold?

I’m guessing that means unmoved. I don’t know, I mean there’s a lot of music I dislike but I don’t know “cold”, that’s a tough question. There are certain styles of music that don’t touch me in such a deep way, and I hear it as kind of background music. There is certain music of the Classical period by certain composers, I guess I don’t want to mention names, that are a bit predictable, predictable in a bad way, so it’s a hard question. I mean there’s country music I can’t stand, but there’s country music that I love. There’s rap I can’t stand and doesn’t touch me at all and then there’s rap music that’s really intelligent and well-crafted and has a very strong visceral effect so I couldn’t say any musical genre or one composer is awful or leaves me cold, that’s a really tough question. I’m sensitive to all music and I’m open to all music and I’m not just being kind by saying that, I’m really being honest. Of course, there’s some pop music out there I can’t stand, but I think we all feel the same way.

 Janáček’s Jealousy was once an opera overture. Do you interpret it as telling a dramatic story or as more of a mood piece?

I think Jealousy by Janáček is a really interesting piece because, yes it was designed at one point to be the overture to Jenůfa, his opera, his masterpiece. In the end he changed his mind, but it does create a certain type of mood and I think that’s exactly what sets the tone of the opera or it sets the tone of this emotion “jealousy”. Of course, within jealousy there are many sub-emotions, there’s love, there’s hate, there’s anger, there’s confusion, and all of that is represented in six minutes of music. I think it’s brilliant and it’s a brilliant look into his compositional process of getting to the opera of Jenůfa. The motive alone that defines this piece, it’s a rising arpeggio and then it’s hopeful and then it’s let down. I think even in that one bar of music, one germ of music, that one motive, there’s a lot of information there in those notes. It’s very well-crafted, it does set a mood. There are moments of anxiety, passion, love, beauty, sadness, and anger – all of that within six minutes of music.  It’s a glimpse into what’s to come from Janáček, a brilliant piece and a brilliant tone poem that exists on its own.

Sibelius is always a complex composer to get right, but what are the particular challenges for a conductor of the Violin Concerto?

Sibelius is often misunderstood because he uses a language which we’re all familiar with – the notes on the page look very similar to the notes of a Brahms symphony or to Schumann or Mozart, but they sound entirely different because Sibelius developed his own language. It has a lot to do with syncopations, music that’s not on the beat but off the beat but without accents, so it’s disorienting. For the audience to be listening to this music, it’s confusing, and it doesn’t always settle the way you expect it to. So the challenge with the Violin Concerto are these wide-open spaces, these textures that require space and patience.  Often conductors and soloists become too controlling of these spaces but when the orchestra knows the piece as well as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for example or the Cleveland Orchestra or the Munich Philharmonic, they’re ready, even in the first rehearsal, they know what to expect, so then you can work on these beautiful musical concepts of transparency and creating this ice-cold atmosphere at times and these open landscapes in a way that you couldn’t with a youth orchestra because there is so much explaining to do. The first time you play the Sibelius Violin Concerto, it’s a minefield of traps, it’s not natural music-making as we know it. It’s something very different, the language is completely new. With a great world-class orchestra, it’s an exciting thing to delve into but when you have an orchestra doing it for the first time there are a lot of challenges.  Ultimately, I think he’s brilliant and a misunderstood composer, one of my favourite composers to work on actually.

Viktoria Mullova. Photo © Heike Fischer 

Have you worked with violinist Viktoria Mullova before, and what are you looking forward to about collaborating with her on the piece?

I had never worked with Viktoria Mullova before but I was very excited to meet her because, of course, I had heard her name so many times and many of my colleagues respect her very much. Now we’ve performed together this week, it’s been an extraordinary experience. She has her interpretation and it’s very different than any other time I’ve done the Sibelius Violin Concerto but she’s completely in control of what she wants and it’s important that she gets what she wants.  As a colleague I find that very interesting to work with, someone who knows what they want. I get the sense from her that she’s been through a lot in her life and she comes across as a very strong woman and a strong musician – it’s a pleasurable and intense experience. She’s a very honest musician. 

Dvořák’s Symphony No 8 always strikes me as great fun to be in charge of. Is it? And how does it sit between the Seventh and the Ninth, in terms of what compositional leaps and bounds he makes in those last three symphonies?

Dvořák’s Symphony No 8 is interesting for many reasons. First of all where it sits in his repertoire in between the Seventh and Ninth symphonies which are completely different works from one another. The Eighth in a way is a celebration, a relatively happy piece of music compared to the Seventh which is very brooding and dark and kind of masculine, whereas I find the 8th to be more feminine and more nature driven. There’s a lot about nature in this symphony, for instance bird calls and it’s a beautiful symphony from beginning to end and it’s well-crafted and celebrates the cello section a lot.

At the end of the day, is it fun to direct? There are moments that are really fun but as a conductor, I don’t think of what’s fun and what’s not fun, the enjoyment comes from bringing the piece to life and, of course, there are exciting moments and in the last movement, in the first moment, and in every movement actually, but I don’t ever think of it that way. I guess it’s a difficult thing when people say, “you look like you’re having fun up there”. Yes, there are ample moments of fun and passion but there are a lot of other things on my mind too so in the end is it more fun than any other piece? It has its challenges, it has its fun moments, it has its celebrations, it has a darker moment. Ultimately, it’s a really well-crafted piece and the biggest pleasure is putting it together with a great orchestra and an orchestra that, again, knows it. In the case of the Melbourne Symphony, it’s been a pleasure to bring this piece to life with them because, of course, they have their way of playing it and I have my way of what I think Dvořák intended and it’s a guessing game to come to a conclusion together and to compromise and figure out a way of making it work in a short rehearsal process or short typical rehearsal process let’s say. But I think it’s a masterpiece, it’s one of his top three symphonies and it showcases his brilliant composition technique and orchestration at the high point of his life. His last three symphonies are a perfect trilogy in a way, in celebration of everything he’s accomplished.

James Gaffigan appears with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, September 2