To Conduct Its Parks Concerts, the Philharmonic Taps a Rising Star

Posted June 8, 2018 7:36 p.m. EDT

A conductor’s first reaction to being offered an outdoor summer concert with an orchestra is often, well, no. The repertory is usually boring; the weather tends to be sweltering; no one in the audience pays attention, anyway. There are more prestigious gigs.


“Unless it’s New York,” as James Gaffigan said recently.

Over the past five decades, the New York Philharmonic’s concerts in the city’s parks have become a well-loved institution. Few high-culture events in a famously busy and easily distracted town bring in as wide an audience. (And the sound, especially if you sit way back, isn’t half bad.)

With the Philharmonic currently between leaders — Jaap van Zweden takes the reins as music director in the fall — the orchestra has tapped Gaffigan as its leader for this year’s series, which begins Tuesday at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and tours to Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn through June 15.

“I always thought the best kinds of parks concert are more variety shows,” Gaffigan said in a phone interview from Switzerland, where he is the music director of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra. “Where there are lots of different styles, there’s lots of starting and stopping. Episodic music works very well in this kind of venue.”

This year’s programs will be no exception, featuring the joyous dances from Bernstein’s “On the Town,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s seductive “Scheherazade” and the riotous Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila.” Oh, and two jazzy pieces from the orchestra’s Very Young Composers initiative. (Truly, truly young, as in 11.) The evenings will end, per tradition, with fireworks.

A 38-year-old native New Yorker — from Staten Island, which is, alas, the only borough to get an indoor chamber concert, on June 17, rather than the full park treatment — Gaffigan is one of the rising stars of his generation. He is widely believed to be a contender for the bevy of prominent U.S. orchestras now looking for their next conductor, including in Detroit, San Francisco and Atlanta. (The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which was also said to be considering him, hired Fabio Luisi, 59, last week.)

“I think he is genuinely being considered for all of them,” Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s chief executive, said in an interview. “He’s energetic, he’s a very affable presence on and off the podium, and I think he has an ability to give enthusiasm for a wide variety of music.”

His recordings with the Lucerne Symphony, where his contract extends until 2022, are vibrant and beautifully played. (I particularly relish a glowing but fierce account of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and “American Suite.”) A Philharmonic concert he led in 2015 — featuring the premiere of an Andrew Norman piano concerto, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel” — was a programming model, a study in musical tricksterism through the ages that gave a new work a brilliantly apt context.

As a child, Gaffigan started as a jazz and rock guitarist, but embraced the bassoon and classical music under the auspices of an inspiring junior high band director. (“How comes Jane’s Addiction doesn’t make me feel the way Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony does?” he recalled thinking.) As his interest in playing waned in his late teens, he tried conducting. He caught the eye of David Zinman at the Aspen Music Festival and went on to assistantships at the Cleveland Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony.

In the style of many young conductors, he says he is eager to lead education and community events, rather than pawn them off on assistants, and to help with fundraising. He said he longs to stretch the bounds of traditional concerts — incorporating poetry, say, or opening an orchestral performance of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony with a Schubert piano sonata — to return some old-fashioned pizazz to a tired, habit-encrusted format.

It’s this understanding — that classical music needs to be an experience — that makes him perfect for the parks.

“I remember going to a parks concert when I was in high school, in Central Park,” he said. “But the memory was not of the music but of my friends, not to sound cheesy. What I remember of that time in my life, of being 15 years old or 16, was hanging out with my friends at night in Central Park. It’s a social thing. It’s about the drama and spectacle of it all.”