Dual perspectives: James Gaffigan & Edward Gardner in conversation

Conductors James Gaffigan (a New Yorker with positions in Amsterdam and Lucerne) and Edward Gardner (a Brit who recently made several major US debuts) share their perspectives on the classical music scene in the US. This interview first appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of The Green Room, Askonas Holt’s magazine. Read the full magazine here.

James: One of the first things I wanted to ask is how you feel about being asked to conduct American music in the US; do you find it intimidating? When I go to the UK I steer clear from Elgar, or Britten, which is strange, because when I go to Helsinki I want to do Sibelius, and when I go to the Czech Phil I love to do Dvořák or Suk…

Edward: It’s funny, I haven’t really done American music in the US; I shy away from it in exactly the same way I think. I would love to do some Copland in the US though; when you’re hearing an orchestra play their own music you get the real essence of who they are. Though I find American orchestras really good at British music as well. Let’s say Britten and onwards. They’re incredibly quick and get that style completely.

J: I think it’s in their vernacular to swing things; I find it really easy to do anything that has elements of jazz in it with American orchestras. I’ve always found that when I hear bits of Ives it feels extremely nostalgic, but when I hear Enigma or Peter Grimes I hear something very foreign.

E: The more I do any of those pieces, the more I enjoy doing them outside the UK than inside. Somehow, they’re kind of trapped within whatever tradition is thought to be. If you talk to British orchestras about Enigma variations it makes them a little bit itchy, because on one hand it’s very well-known and it’s overplayed, and on another it’s unbelievably elusive to get it great. Yet taking pieces like that to America, that doesn’t have the stigma or itchiness, is wonderful.

Let’s talk about the temperament of the orchestras. I find it’s a very different feeling in a rehearsal with an American orchestra than with a British orchestra.

J: I remember when I started conducting people would say, “the British orchestras are great in the first rehearsal, but it’s hard to get it any better than that.”

E: That’s the cliché, yes…

J: I’ve worked with LSO, LPO, BBC, Bournemouth… and they really want to dig deeper. It’s a total cliché.

E: I quite like the rhythm of the way American orchestras rehearse, with a short rehearsal on day one. You have to hit the ground running in that two and a half hours so that it gestates overnight, and by day two it really feels like you’re in a project together.

J: It used to feel like survival to me when I first started. But you have to pick your battles and not everything is going to be perfect. You have to let some things slide and then assume that some things will get better.

E: We both work with orchestras that have a lot of rehearsal time, generally. When you go back to the States and there’s a day and half of pretty short rehearsals, do you alter how you do it?

J: I programme differently as a guest conductor than as chief conductor. With Lucerne, if I’m doing a big programme with, say, a world premiere and a very difficult symphony by a lesser known composer, I’ll add a rehearsal. Or I’ll have a sectional with the strings beforehand. Then, as a guest conductor, if there’s a piece on the programme like Sibelius Symphony No. 4, say, or a Busoni piece nobody knows, I’ll make sure the rest of the programme is doable. Not to hide the modern piece, but to give it the appropriate rehearsal time.

E: The more I do, the more I realise that. That day and a half is quick and you want to get to the general feeling really on top of it. The other thing I wanted to talk about is general rehearsals. In America, I find that the orchestra really want to work in that rehearsal?

J: [laughs] It’s funny you say that, as I had the opposite thing when I started fixing things in a general rehearsal in the UK for the first time. People looked at me and were like “what’s wrong with this guy?” And everyone will say something different, even within the orchestra. I had a very strange experience where I had one person saying “you really should run the Bruckner symphony at the general”, and the other said “please don’t run it, the musicians will be so upset”. You have to step back and make an artistic decision, that can’t be based on whether people will like you or not. But at the same time you don’t want to hurt their trust or their stamina for the evening. Every orchestra’s different and to gauge that is a psychological maze.

Edward Gardner with the Bergen Philharmonic © Helge Skodvin

E: Even my own orchestra [Bergen Phil] have talked to me about how much they want to play on the day. For some people, not doing a run-through of a Tchaikovsky symphony on the day is awful; they can’t cope with the idea of not having it in their muscles that day.

J: It’s like training; you can’t just run a marathon, you have to get into it. Can I ask, did you enjoy the New York Philharmonic? [Edward made his New York Phil debut earlier this year]

E: Completely wonderful! It sounds pejorative, but they’re so professional about the way that they rehearse. It’s a lovely thing. I found them completely flexible and interested in what I wanted to do with the music.

J: For some reason, especially when I was a teenager, they had a strange reputation among conductors, and a lot of my colleagues that are our age went there, and they didn’t have such a great experience. But again, that was a decade ago.

E: With all of these orchestra reputations, they’re always five or ten years out of date. There are very few places where you feel they want anything other than for it to go as well as possible.

The Green Room: And how do you view the network of support around US and UK institutions, in terms of financial support and audience development?

J: In the US, I do a lot of fundraising and meeting sponsors; it’s a normal part of my life. In Lucerne too. But I think the only place where I’ve met patrons in the UK is Glyndebourne.

In America, there are lots of people giving their private money to these institutions, and you need to make sure they know how much they’re appreciated. The one danger with that is you also need to convince them about repertoire choices, to inspire them about things that may seem out of the ordinary for them.

E: What I’m struck by in the States on every level is the civic model of an orchestra; the way it exists within the community. And that’s from the way the patrons interact, they’re incredibly generous, to the way that a season’s programmed, to the fact that they’re much more known within normal people’s circles let’s say, in a place like New York or San Francisco. The San Francisco Symphony is the orchestra of the city and they’re very proud of it. That’s hard to get, especially in places like London.

I think about it more and more; what the orchestra does as a cultural magnet within a city. I love all that about America. And the fundraising; I would never have a problem doing that. There are so many people willing to support. And I’m sure you’re right about the repertoire, because you must appeal utterly directly to the people funding and to the people coming.

J: It’s a balance of trust. If you gain their trust, you can do anything. But you need to gain their trust.

E: Which is no bad thing, we should have to anyway. In the UK, opera has that kind of thing. You mentioned Glyndebourne, and places like ENO, the Royal Opera, rely so much on their patrons, and there’s quite a close connection between the big patrons and the performers.

What about opera? It feels like a different beast in America from symphonic work. The temperature of opera orchestras is different. The Met orchestra, who are remarkable because they’re putting this stuff on so quickly and so brilliantly all the time, have an atmosphere more like a British orchestra; people start working things out for themselves, it’s a bit chattier.

J: They are much calmer, they know it’s a long run. Even in the shorter runs at the Met for example. I’m leading the Met for the first time this fall [James conducts La bohème at the Met this September], but I know from friends in the orchestra that their mentality is “ok, we’ve been through this, we know how it goes, but there are a few new people, so we’re going to take our time to figure it out”. There’s a lot more pressure on the clock when you’re with a symphonic orchestra.

E: I can’t remember who said this to me, but someone in an opera orchestra said that they don’t judge their relationship with a conductor until they’ve seen them with the singers and can see how that chemistry works. And then if they feel it works, they go along with it. I find that very much at the Met. If a singer and a conductor are locked in, it happens, and if they’re not it really doesn’t.

You’ve worked in a lot of American opera houses, haven’t you? I saw you in Washington with that lovely Figaro, and you’ve been to San Francisco, Chicago?

J: Yes, and Houston – a beautiful company, they did a great job. I like US opera houses. Again, I find you get to know the public; they come backstage, they sponsor dinners, they have events, they have parties after the show. I think opera lovers are die hard, but I also think there can be a strange relationship to the voice and, especially if the singing is in another language, some people can have a tough time with that. Something I do that people love is The Ring Without Words. So many people came to me when I did it in Detroit saying “I’m so glad we didn’t have to listen to those people screaming in German!” I was heartbroken, because this is some of the best music we have! At least it’s a wonderful introduction for people…

E: And you did that with a symphony orchestra?

J: Yes, the Detroit Symphony. And I did it with Lucerne too. The musicians love it because they never get to play this music.

James Gaffigan © Festival de Saint-Denis 2014

TGR: Is it another cliché to say that there’s an American sound in terms of symphony orchestras?

J: I think those days are over. Chicago sounded a certain way with Fritz Reiner, Cleveland sounded a certain way with George Szell. What made an American sound back then was the music director. They had priorities of sound and of balance, and they were very different from one another. [Eugene] Ormandy in Philadelphia had a very different view as to what a good orchestra sound was from Szell. I think the American sound is a very strange concept, and what defines a great American orchestra is versatility. And I think the same goes for the British orchestras; they can play any style.

E: The one thing that I’d add to that is that with American orchestras a lot of their identity is framed by the halls, because of course they rehearse in them as well, which you sometimes get in Europe, but never in the UK. That’s a very specific thing to America.

This interview first appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of The Green Room, Askonas Holt’s magazine. Read the full magazine here.

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