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Maestro Emmanuel Villaume’s cherished decade-long tenure as Spoleto USA’s Director of Opera & Orchestra is history — and there’s no doubt that he’ll be sorely missed. We have him to thank not only for brilliant programming and inspired conducting as the festival has moved into the 21st century, but also for his work in helping to raise the performance standards of the magnificent Spoleto Festival Orchestra (SFO). The word is that the administration is not even close to naming his successor, though, according to festival director Nigel Redden, efforts in that direction are definitely under way. So, in the meantime, with a major orchestral concert scheduled, what’s America’s biggest and best performing arts festival to do?

The answer, for now, lies in the engagement of young American conductor James Gaffigan. There are those who might question the wisdom of picking a relatively unseasoned and youthful conductor in a field where many don’t hit their full stride until their 40s or 50s. To that, I can only respond that there are quite a few brilliant “prodigy” baton-shakers out there these days who are making fabulous music and generating lots of buzz (most notably Venezuela’s Gustavo Dudamel). Besides, right from the start, Spoleto has maintained a strong tradition of showcasing the very finest young talents who are destined for greatness. Gaffigan fits that mold.  

Gaffigan’s rocket-ride to stardom in the international conducting firmament was launched in 2004, with his resounding win at the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition. Along the way, he’s definitely paid his dues, having earned most of the important conducting fellowships (Tanglewood, Aspen). He’s also learned much of his craft as assistant to Franz Welser-Möst with the Cleveland Orchestra, and, later, as associate to Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco. He couldn’t have found better mentors. He’s guest-conducted many of the world’s tip-top orchestras both domestic and abroad, on every continent, no less. Opera engagements have taken him to many important houses — he even has an upcoming engagement at the Vienna State Opera, which means he’ll be working with that city’s legendary Philharmonic.