James Gaffigan first appeared on my radar back in 2002 when he was one of four young conductors who took part in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Synergy project at USC, which sought to build relationships between the conductors and composers.
He did not make his formal L.A. Phil debut until 2012, but by then, he had notable European posts in Lucerne, the Netherlands and Cologne, while guest-conducting all over the place.
Now 35, Gaffigan has plenty of experience under his belt, and it showed in a dynamic, assured return appearance with the philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night. The musicians in the Phil looked and sounded as if they were responding with a higher level of engagement and zest than usual, and I suspect that Gaffigan's refreshing choices of 20th century repertoire played a big part in that.
When the name Prokofiev appears at the top of a program, it usually means another performance of the "Classical Symphony." Not for Gaffigan: He selected the Symphony No. 3, a wild, ornery, challenging, rarely played artifact of the 1920s with music recycled and reworked from Prokofiev's strange opera, "The Fiery Angel."
Gaffigan calls this music "pure evil." It's not completely like that; the piece straddles Prokofiev's transition from his window-smashing, bad-boy early period to his more refined later Soviet period. But Gaffigan conducted it with an almost gleeful mixture of malice and gusto.
He kept a strong persuasive rhythm swaying throughout the first movement and cranked up the tempos of the marches to a manic pace. Yet even in the noisiest passages, he exposed a wealth of underlying detail in almost three-dimensional depth.
Rather than run through another rendition of the "West Side Story" dances, Gaffigan chose Leonard Bernstein's symphonic suite from his one-and-only film score, "On the Waterfront."
Bernstein's talent and ego were too large to be subjugated to a background role in a film and the whims of Hollywood producers and directors. Even so, he created music that not only enhanced the film but stands up marvelously well in concert form — a difficult trick to pull off.
Gaffigan brought plenty of invigorating swagger to the dockside violence, and the love music moved along unsentimentally, with an undercurrent of tension.
The most notable aspect that Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski and Gaffigan brought to Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" — and it's a big one — was wit.
Very few would associate the quality of wit with this composer, but aside from the ingeniously rapturous 18th variation, the "Rhapsody" has it in spades, and Trpceski brought it out with his crisp, crystalline, lightly pedaled playing, as did Gaffigan in his brash, alert conducting. As a result, this piano concerto-in-all-but-name sounded fresh and alive.
Catch this concert if you can.