Noteworthy graduates: James Gaffigan, orchestra conductor


As a young boy, Jimmy Gaffigan learned to play piano, and later guitar, by ear. “I loved the way certain notes sounded together and I would try to mimic what I heard.” Before he was 10, Jimmy often was called upon to play piano during assemblies at PS 4 on Staten Island. Today, James Gaffigan often is called upon to serve as guest conductor for orchestras throughout the country and abroad. “If I didn’t go to public schools, I never would be where I am today,” says Gaffigan, the music director and chief conductor of Switzerland’s Lucerne Symphony Orchestra since 2011. “It’s an extraordinary gift to have a great teacher because that’s what gets kids excited about something. I remember so many of them and their passion.” After graduating from LaGuardia HS of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Gaffigan attended the New England Conservatory of Music and earned his master’s in conducting from Rice University in Houston. Right out of graduate school, he became assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and then served as associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, a position specially created for him. Gaffigan conducted the New York Philharmonic’s city parks series over the summer and is now making his Metropolitan Opera debut conducting La Boheme — probably “the biggest achievement I’ve had so far in America.”

I started at PS 4 on Staten Island in the mid-1980s. It was an amazing combination of great teachers and great possibilities. Teachers are so essential to how we develop as people.

My kindergarten teacher, Esta Samiljan, was always encouraging and kind and very open and warm. There was music and singing in her class at all times. Rosemarie Pilkington, a 5th-grade teacher, was a brilliant and charismatic educator who coordinated all the music events at the school. She would have all the children at school singing. It was part of our daily routine, and it’s a beautiful memory, a safe memory. There was no shame in playing music or singing, and all kids should experience that. If kids are introduced to music at a young age and within a safe environment, it makes it OK and interesting, and young people realize they could actually do this for a living.

I played in the band at PS 4. I chose the clarinet because it had the most pieces to put together. Anthony Gambino, the band director, was a wind player so he was able to help us and teach us from a very young age. And he was very patient.

It became clear to me in middle school that I wanted to become a musician. It was mainly because of Barry Delman, the band director at IS 75. He ran a great program. There was a sense of humor and a very good balance of hard work and play in that band room. I made the switch from clarinet to bassoon partly because of more opportunity for financial aid in college — there just aren’t that many bassoon players — but also because Barry Delman played bassoon part-time on Broadway and in the Staten Island Symphony. My parents hired him to give me private lessons, and he basically trained me. He was an inspiring guy. I got into LaGuardia HS and the Juilliard School Preparatory Division because of him.

Playing in the IS 75 orchestra opened my eyes to so many different possibilities. Classical music had a much deeper palette of emotions and was unlike anything I found familiar. The music of Mendelssohn and Mozart and Wagner and Strauss made me feel so differently than music I was listening to at the time.

LaGuardia HS seemed so far away but, with my parents’ help, I was willing to commute from Staten Island to Manhattan. Besides playing in orchestra, we had chamber music classes, theory classes, solfège — all on a daily basis with English, math and science. On weekends, I played in the Interschool Orchestra, made up of public school kids, and I attended Juilliard on Saturdays.

I loved playing the bassoon, but it was frustrating because there was limited repertoire. I started thinking about conducting. The scores in front of me with all the music and everyone’s parts became a fascination of mine. There was something inside of me, kind of an inner rhythm and a love of people and working with other musicians, and I thought conducting was perfect for me. There are all these incredibly talented people and your job is to get them to work together. Every orchestra is different so a conductor needs to be a chameleon and adjust to each setting.

One day during senior year, the orchestra director at LaGuardia wanted to go out in the audience to listen. “Jimmy, you could conduct,” she said. “Get up here.”

It was Dvorak’s Symphony 8, the final movement. I was extremely nervous, but I got up there. I was 17 or 18. And from that moment I knew, without a doubt, that’s what I was going to do.

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