Maestro move: US conductor will reign in Spain

Maestro move: US conductor will reign in Spain


norman lebrecht

June 29, 2021

The displaced James Gaffigan, who left the Lucerne Symphony without another chiefdom, has been named music director of the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia.

His opening season will open with a staging of Mozart’s Requiem and end with Berg’s Wozzeck.


He is also principal guest in his Norwegian home town Trondheim, and is starting as MD of the Junior Festival Orchestra at Verbier.


  • New Yorker says:


  • Anon says:

    He’s in for the ride of his life. No Spanish conductor in his right mind would touch this job. Look what it did to Helga Schmidt.

    Respectfully, Gaffigan shoulda done his homework before signing on.

  • Michel Lemieux says:

    Can the LA Chamber Orchestra send (the dependable but uninspiring) Jaime Martin back to Spain and take James Gaffigan instead?

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    Sounds great. I heard him conduct Ariadne auf Naxos in Santa Fe in 2019 and was very impressed.

  • NYMike says:

    He’s a fine musician.

  • Franz says:

    3rd rate conductor to lead 3rd rate orchestra…wow, what a fascinating news item!

    • FrauGeigerin says:

      Have you heard that orchestra? I heard it when Maazel was the music director and it was good.

      • Anon says:

        Aha, Frau, we meet again! This time on my turf!

        Maazel’s reign was eons ago. He was the 1st music director and they still had money. When the money ran out he left. Then the big problems started. The orch attracts good players, but it’s not a stable situation so many of the best have left.

        • FrauGeigerin says:

          Not so long ago, my dear Anon; it couldn’t be more than 12 years ago. But you might be right, because I haven’t heard the orchestra since then.

          Is this your turf?

    • Hispa-vox says:

      Previous music directors: Lorin Maazel, Omer Meir Wellber, Fabio Biondi, Roberto Abbado… Not bad, if you ask me. The list of guest conductors is even more impressive. Top conductors usually do not accept engagements with mediocre orchestras. So not a 3rd class orchestra…

      • Anon says:

        This was in their glory days. They’ve run out of money. They have labor conflicts. Their house is falling down. Times have changed.

        • Carlorio says:

          What is the problem with you Anon? You did not pass the audition? Is that why you are so bitter?

          • Anon says:

            The freelancers who sub there talk. The media has covered what’s gone on there extensively so it’s common knowledge.

            And I really really hate what they did to Helga Schmidt. Unforgivable.

  • caranome says:

    “CONDUCTOR WILL REIGN IN SPAIN”. Will he stay mainly in the plain?

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    This information is already doing the rounds among the elite.

  • fflambeau says:

    This is quite a step down.

  • BRUCEB says:

    A staged version of the Requiem. Hmmmm.

    • musiclover9 says:

      Staged versions of concert pieces are usually terrible. Let’s remember the terrible Der Messias (Mozart version) conducted by Minkowski at the Mozart Week in Salzburg last year…

  • Fan says:

    Gifted conductor. Well deserved.

  • Clevelander says:


  • Kman says:

    I’ve always heard the advice “don’t quit a job until you have your next one lined up.”

    I guess some conductors stand down with one orchestra and just kind of expect something else good to shake out? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, I suppose.

    Another example is Joshua Weilerstein, a seemingly talented guy who would a step backward with his upcoming gig despite announcing his looming departure from Lausanne some time ago. The pandemic didn’t help the cause, I’m sure…

  • Rodrigo says:

    To everyone who is applauding this appointment, just know that this organization, Les Arts, in Valencia is a disaster!

    And as the internationally renowned manager Helga Schmidt discovered, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Les Arts ended her career, her reputation & eventually her life. She was simply doing her job. Valencian politicians blamed her for their own corruption and ignorance. She was hauled away by police, accused by the courts and not allowed to leave the country for months. She died in her homeland a broken woman.

    Nearly every conductor and manager has fled running from this place. Schmidt’s Italian successor very quickly had his fill and left abruptly. Les Arts is funded and run by the Valencian local govt. These politicians are corrupt, don’t know much about how to run an opera company and want to control everything. Spanish conductors who are qualified to lead this orchestra have turned the job down. They know how it will end.

    It’s interesting that in Spain, in several conflictive orchestral situations, politicians (who control the orchs) and musicians alike seem to think that appointing an American is a good solution. Americans (US Americans to be PC) are often perceived as having some kind of power or strength which corrolates to the US’s international status as a “world power”. These Valencians are not as concerned with evaluating Gaffigan artistically with this appointment, as they are invoking his perceived power as an American, a foreign outsider from an important country who can resolve their endless conflicts and disasters.

    Just ask John Axelrod how this came down in Sevilla. Besides Les Arts, Sevilla is probably the other most conflictive orchestra in Spain. Endless labor disputes, forceable removal of a long standing MD, constant unrest among the musicians, abestos in their opera house, a near lawsuit by Karel Mark Chichon when he didn’t win the MD position, you name it. The solution? Appoint an American. Enter John Axelrod from Texas. He was also quite pleased at winning himself the music directorship of a top Spanish orch, just as Mr. Gaffigan is now, without understanding that Spanish orchestras, unlike those in the US, ANSWER TO LOCAL POLITICIANS.

    You have to give Mr. Axelrod credit in Sevilla. As soon as he recognized the extent of the mismanagement of the orchestra, he got himself named as General Manager as well as Music Director. After a year or so of this, he threw in the towel and resigned from the Manager part. A for effort. But now he’s not even Music Director, which speaks volumes.

    Spaniards expect a lot from US Americans. Mr. Gaffigan, I’m sure, was a consensual choice of the Valencian politicians and the Valencian mafia in the orchestra. Why not? He’s a “powerful” American. As soon as those Valencian musicians in the Les Arts orch. perceive any artistic weaknesses they will eat him alive. It’s what Valencians do. This could mar his reputation for a long time. As soon as Mr. Gaffigan attempts to assert any artistic issues with management, who answer to Valencian politicians, he will either be forced to concede his wishes to them or to butt heads with them, causing more conflict.

    This appointment is not as glorious as it appears. Spaniards are great at maintaining appearances. Les Arts appears to be a thriving opera company, with fabulous productions. Their orchestra is in shambles, with players who’ve been bailing like rats from a sinking ship, their history – most notably their cruelty with Helga Schmidt – their financial instability, labor issues, right down to the very building they play in which has been falling down since it was built, say otherwise.

    It seems inappropriate to me to congratulate James Gaffigan on this appointment. He’s a lamb going to the slaughter.

    • Hayne says:

      This is very interesting to me. Are most Spanish orchestras similar to this (albeit on a lesser level)?

      • Rodrigo says:

        Not really. Most Spanish orchs can reconcile more easily with the local govt which supports them. And if there are disagreements, they try very hard keep it out of the press. Maintaining appearances is key. Controversies exist, but they are usually kept under wraps in Spain.

        Sevilla & Les Arts are 2 extreme examples of what can go wrong with govt. funded arts organizations. In Sevilla, it’s been a combination of factors. The Andalusian local govt. which funds them also supports 2 other full time orchs. – Cordoba & Malaga. That’s unusual in Spain. It’s too many orchs. for a not-so-wealthy region, so money is tight.

        Spanish orchs aren’t officially unionized, but often have individual players who are members of recognized labor unions. These labor unions are powerful and demanding. They also go to the press a lot. It looks like Sevilla must have a good number of players active in labor unions, because the unions are constantly stirring up unrest there and going to the press.

        The big issue in Sevilla, though, was their former music director, who was a govt. appointee and part of a powerful and influential family. The musicians did not like him. He was hard to get rid of. They finally did, and John Axelrod was the replacement. So Sevilla has been in the spotlight, probably because of its union affiliations, with regard to its conflictive relationship with its regional govt.

        With Les Arts, it’s a different set of problems, but also related to the organization’s relationship with its local govt. It’s a complex set of issues, but basically it comes down to Valencia wanting credit for and control of their opera house but running into a lot of problems trying to do this because they had no experience. And since many big names were involved, and since opera companies always seem to make the headlines when they’re in trouble, everyone saw the various disasters play out publicly in the press.

        Many Spanish orchs do indeed have conflicts with the regional govts. which support them. But they are seldom reported in the press as they have been in Sevilla and Les Arts.

        The Orchestra of the Region of Murcia, for example, is bound to have some conflicts because one of the dominant political parties in that region is the far right, anti-feminist Vox. Their music director is a woman. But you never read this in the news. You hear about it word of mouth. You read between the lines.

        The bottom line on accepting a music directorship in Spain is that you have to do your homework. Know what you’re getting into, the history of the orch, the govt. you’ll be answering to. Are there local elections coming up? That could change the whole dynamic of the orchestra. I’m not convinced James Gaffigan did that.

        Just as a US music director answers to a Board of Directors, a Spanish music director answers to the local government. Ideally this is done through a good manager, but that doesn’t always happen. Being a MD in Spain requires a different skillset than in the US. You don’t have to deal with fund raising, but you do have to be a good diplomat and political advocate for your orchestra.

  • Dot says:

    Overrated musician strategically married to a politically clever but mediocre violinist who’s had enough plastic surgery to shame Cher. Slow clap.