Houston Symphony

James Gaffigan On His Love Of Beethoven, Strauss, Liszt And Houston

A conversation with the locally-trained, internationally-renowned conductor, who returns to the Houston Symphony

Considered by many to be the most outstanding young conductor today, James Gaffigan is Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and a graduate of Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, where he received his Masters of Music in conducting.

Maestro Gaffigan is in town this week to conduct the Houston Symphony and pianist Bezhod Abduraimov in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, and Liszt’s Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3.

He stopped by Houston Public Media to talk about the program (and the unique order in which he’s presenting the pieces) and to reminisce about his good old student days in Houston.

Check out highlights from our conversation below, and listen to the complete interview above.

On Houston:

“I have very strong feelings for Houston, in a great way, because I went to school here at Rice University and studied with Larry Rachleff at the Shepherd School of Music. So any time I come back to Houston for any reason, it brings back a flood of great memories of being in school and meeting all the friends that I have today and keep in touch with. And, of course, the Houston Symphony has been great to me, even from the beginning of my career. … Being a New Yorker, I never thought I’d be in Houston, Texas ever in my lifetime because Texas is so abstract to a New Yorker. Going to school here, it became clear that the arts, and the culture, are at such a high level here, not just the symphonies but the museums … and the food is extraordinary! … I mean, you know, in Europe you can’t get Mexican food! … Food is really important to me, and wine, and good friends. The music is at a high level, but there are also some really great people here.”

On Liszt:

“We always think The Beatles invented the concept album, but it was in fact Liszt! Liszt had these tone poems [in which] many little tunes exist within the tone poem, and they relate to each other in one way or another. So I was joking with the orchestra about that, that Liszt was way [ahead of] The Beatles.”

On Beethoven:

“He’s a complicated figure, and he’s a complicated composer, because he doesn’t actually write melodies. When you sing a theme, whether it’s [sings openings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 7, mvt. 2; Piano Concerto No. 5, mvt. 3], it’s all rhythmic gestures, it’s all dance gestures. Very rarely does Beethoven write a melody. And even the most beautiful melodies he’s written, they’re abstract, they’re strange, they’re from little fragments of rhythm. So I think Beethoven had to work so hard to come up with a melody. And out of harmonic little elements and rhythmic elements come these melodies. The melody is born from rhythmic elements, which is the opposite of Strauss, the opposite of Liszt.”

On working with pianist Bezhod Abduraimov:

“[Our first rehearsal in Houston] went great! You know, he’s such an amazing person. He’s an incredible individual, who’s a very serious musician. He’s very young, but you wouldn’t know that by hearing him. We’ve worked together on a few occasions. I remember the first time, the orchestra was completely blown away – “Who is this kid? Where is he from?” It was the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, and Yefim Bronfman cancelled. And he’s actually from the same town that Yefim Bronfman is from [Tashkent, Uzbekistan] … He stepped in to do Tchaikovsky, and it was mind-blowing. You know, the L.A. Philharmonic hears Tchaikovsky every year, [but] this was extraordinary. And it was on one, one-hour rehearsal! Incredible.”

The Houston Symphony presents Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (plus works by Strauss and Liszt), featuring guest conductor James Gaffigan and pianist Bezhod Abduraimov, on Thursday, January 12, 8pm; Saturday, January 14, 8pm and Sunday, January 15, 2:30pm at Jones Hall.

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Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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