It was kind of a mishmash at the symphony this week. The National Symphony Orchestra welcomed back 32-year-old guest conductor James Gaffigan in an odd program: late and early Mozart bookending a U.S. premiere (and NSO co-commission) and the Schumann Piano Concerto. If there was a theme or thread running through any of this, it was too subtle for me.
Gaffigan, handsome and amiable, is well-pedigreed; studies at Aspen and Tanglewood, winner of the 2004 Solti Competition in Germany, and stints as an assistant with the Cleveland Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony. He now divides his time between orchestras in Switzerland and the Netherlands when not running here to guest-conduct. Last night’s concert in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was the first of three.
The new work, “Shoreless River,” by Detlev Glanert, was premiered in Germany in 2009. It is an excerpt from an opera about a ship, but one had to read the program notes to glean that it seeks to evoke the ocean. Hundreds, if not thousands, of tone poems begin with an indistinct primordial stew, followed by grumblings in the low strings, then a procession of keening solos for various wind instruments interspersed with frantic passage-work shot through with busy percussion, a gradual build-up to a chaotically dissonant climax and finally subsiding back into the opening gloom.
What this new work adds to the genre, I couldn’t say on one hearing. Such melodic material as there was was instantly forgettable. Too many composers seem to believe that a succession of “imaginative” sounds is all you need to sustain an audience’s interest for 18 minutes. Most of us would like something more.
Ingrid Fliter, the evening’s soloist in the Schumann concerto, is a seasoned, expressive artist. She plays with lots of color and feeling but too often with not enough care with the pulse. In the first movement, her rubato in the opening solo was incoherent, and the development section was so dreamy that I nearly nodded off. She certainly made up for it with a fiery, aggressive cadenza, but the poetry of the intermezzo was somewhat underdone, and neither she nor Gaffigan had any real strategy to overcome the repetitiveness of the finale.
The concert opened with Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 136, and ended with the celebrated “Jupiter” Symphony. It was in these ubiquitous, thrice-familiar works that the conductor’s shortcomings were revealed. The many exchanges of smiles between conductor and players were nice, but easy rapport doesn’t necessarily lead to top-drawer performances. The playing Thursday night had no particular profile or distinction — textures were often fuscous, with nonmelodic elements left to fend for themselves. The sloppiness of the violins’ 16th notes in the Divertimento was mirrored by many careless entrances in the “Jupiter.”
I’m all for grabbing opportunities when they’re presented, but too many talented young musicians have overreached early in their careers, to their detriment. Between now and March 8, the Internet tells me that Gaffigan is slated to conduct 27 pieces, including complex works by Bartok, Rihm, Ades and Strauss. This may be how you make a splash professionally, but it is not how you develop musicianship or depth of interpretation. I cannot imagine a Bernstein, Solti or von Karajan, each with several multiples of Gaffigan’s experience, taking on such a schedule. While his concerts may go well and be deemed as successes at some level, he also risks not being taken seriously as an artist.
The program will be repeated tonight and Saturday.
Battey is a freelance writer.