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Music review: James Gaffigan's Los Angeles Philharmonic debut

March 31, 2012 |  2:45 pm

Mark Swed reviews the Los Angeles Philharmonic debut of James Gaffigan, the latest impressive young conductor on a career fast-track to drop by Walt Disney Concert Hall
For gifted young conductors, who are all but ubiquitous these days, 30 is the new 50. The latest to drop by Walt Disney Concert Hall to make a spirited debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was 33-year-old James Gaffigan.

Friday's program book noted that this past summer Gaffigan, a former associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, became music director of the Lucerne Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, two fine stopping-off posts for a young conductor on a career fast-track. But he's faster than that. On Tuesday, the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne appointed Gaffigan as its principal guest conductor. One of Germany’s most important orchestras, it was once headed by another New Yorker, James Conlon.

Gaffigan is not unlike a young Conlon. His conducting style is direct and communicative. He likes to whip up excitement, and he does it well. He seems attracted to agreeable corners of the 20th century -– he began the program with Respighi's irresistible "Trittico Botticelliano" (Botticelli Triptych), which the L.A. Phil had somehow resisted until now. Gaffigan followed that with an L.A. Phil favorite, the suite from Bartók's "The Miraculous Mandarin." After intermission came a universal favorite -- Grieg's Piano Concerto with André Watts as soloist.

The Respighi was intriguing, especially coming on the heels of another obscure Respighi L.A. Phil premiere two weeks earlier -– Adagio con Variazioni for cello and orchestra featuring Alisa Weilerstein. It showed a more lyrical/spiritual side of a splashy Italian composer known for evoking the pines, fountains and festivals of Rome.

Respighi also had a knack for spooky melodrama -– his 1934 opera, "La Fiamma," concerns Norwegian witchcraft –- and a penchant for placing ancient Greek and Gregorian modes and scales in modern, mystical contexts. He does a little of the latter in his musical depictions of three Botticelli paintings.

For this triptych, Respighi used a small orchestra with but single winds and brass (no trombone) and lots of sparkle (glockenspiel, triangle, harp, celesta and piano). The instrumental hues are bright enough to make one wonder whether the original Botticelli canvases in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery might need cleaning.

With the first painting, "Spring" is sprung thanks through instrumental burbling and chirping giving fresh guise to Renaissance dances. "The Adoration of the Magi" suggests that you don't always need to choose between religiosity and decadence. Botticelli was a sexy painter, and Respighi, in "The Birth of Venus," is the eager seducer.

In remarks to the audience, Gaffigan described the first half of the program as the sacred and profane. But both composers were too sly for such distinctions. For Respighi, the church readily preys on the senses. In Bartók's ballet about a three thieves and a reluctant prostitute, a mysterious Mandarin who can't be knifed, shot or hanged finds death in a lover's transcendent embrace.

The 20-minute suite is a little bit of a cheat because it lobs off a hefty chunk of revelatory music, and Gaffigan was a naïve when he said it is rarely heard. Esa-Pekka Salonen and Pierre Boulez did it with the orchestra. The suite, too, is common. The young Chinese conductor Xian Zhang made her exciting L.A. Phil debut with it three years ago.

Gaffigan went for graphic theater. He gave a vividly entertaining description of the plot to the audience and then conducted exactly what he had described. Bartók made the clarinet a Marlene Dietrich, and the orchestra principal clarinetist, Michele Zukovsky, as she had done in this piece many times before, captured Bartók's subtle portrayal of a prostitute's retrieval of dignity from disgrace. The violas were riveting. Bold brass made one's hair stand on end.

How nice it would be were André Watts to play something other than the handful of warhorses he always turns to. He must have played the Grieg thousands of time in his career (it was his vehicle less than two years ago when he last appeared with the Pacific Symphony in Orange County).

Friday, he knocked off the Grieg once again. But like an old lion, which he is coming to resemble, Watts plays with an authority not worth arguing with. He gets from the keyboard the booming resonance of a great orator, which he also -- in a pianistic way -- resembles. Gaffigan conducted with respect for Watts and a flair for Grieg.

Maybe it is not always necessary to dig deep. Watts reminded listeners of what is before our faces. The audience loved him. I didn’t expect to, but I did too.

RELATED:

Music review: Leonard Slatkin returns to the Hollywood Bowl

Music Review: Xian Zhang conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Music review: Osmo Vanska in his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 2 p.m. Sunday; $57-$180; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photo: Pianist André Watts and conductor James Gaffigan with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall Friday night. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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