James Gaffigan in Philadelphia

James Gaffigan led this week’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert of Bernstein, Gershwin and Tchaikovsky with sweep and style. There were strikingly crisp rhythms in the On the Waterfront suite, and in Rhapsody in Blue (with the fine Stewart Goodyear as soloist), and James had command of both the grand and intimate gestures of excerpts from Swan Lake.

The Bernstein is relatively unfamiliar, at least compared to its companions on this program. I was struck by two things: how literally the opening theme is repeated as it returns several times in the piece (is this a plus or a minus?) and how Bernstein is able to create an affirmative ending for the piece while still using a dissonant harmonic palette.

I first met James when he led the preview performance of excerpts from my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Civic Orchestra in 2009. He did a fantastic job of bringing the piece to life. I recall that I didn’t have to make many comments about his interpretation – James had already internalized the piece. And he’s got the chops to convey the music he has made his own to the orchestra and thence to the audience.

When I first saw the listing of repertoire for this program I was a bit disappointed, wishing James had a chance to shine in music that digs a little deeper. But not every concert has to be earth-shakingly profound – at least not when it is performed this well.

(photo: Gaffigan, Goodyear and the Philadelphia in rehearsal, from the Orchestra’s Twitpic feed.)

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