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February 17, 2014IM -
JoAnn Falletta keeps a diary of poems, all about inspirational moments in her professional life. Most have to do with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra (VSO) and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), where Falletta has been music director since 1991 and 1999, respectively.
“The poems are all about the musicians in the orchestra and their special qualities, or a certain concert that I couldn’t forget,” she says. “I just kept them for myself and would read them and remember these wonderful people and times.”
Then, a friend encouraged Falletta to publish her work. Though at first set on keeping her poems private, she became convinced to publish them when she realized that people in the two communities where she lives and works—Buffalo, New York, and southeast Virginia—could learn what music feels like for the musicians they see on stage. “People know it is something very special to be a musician,” Falletta says. “They want to know what it is like to be in the middle of the piece or what is very special about this music.”
And so the world-renowned conductor and member of Local 125 (Norfolk, VA)—who regularly chats with neighbors in the grocery store and can be spotted riding her bike around town—let her orchestras’ audiences even further into her world, sharing her innermost thoughts about music. After all, she’s not just someone in front of the orchestra wielding a baton. She has become the bridge between each of the orchestras she directs and the communities they serve.
“You’re really friend-raising,” Falletta says emphatically, referring to her role in fundraising for BPO and VSO. “You’re bringing people into the circle of your orchestra. You’re introducing them to music. You’re opening the door.”
Falletta’s involvement in development, marketing, and public relations for her orchestras is something that she describes as a true pleasure. “When you really see, as I have, that your connection to people and companies and foundations ensures the health of your organization, it’s a great thing to do,” she explains.
The importance of such connections is something she simply learned on the job—not at Mannes College The New School for Music, where she earned her undergraduate degree, or at The Juilliard School, where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees. While in school, she was focused only on being the best conductor she could be.
Falletta had dreamed of conducting since she was 11 years old. She played classical guitar and, growing up in New York City, frequently attended orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall. “I just fell in love with the sound of the orchestra and with watching the musicians—how focused they were on beauty and how they all worked together to make something beautiful happen,” she recalls. “I saw their concentration and dedication, and I thought, I have to be in the middle of that!”
To this day, Falletta is incredibly grateful to Mannes and Juilliard for accepting her into their conducting programs, despite the fact that, in the ’80s, it was still uncommon to see female conductors. “It was a very big thing for me that they believed in me,” she says.
Her professors saw in her the spark of a talent that is now recognized across the world. In September, Falletta will add to her résumé the title of principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland and in the upcoming concert season, her guest conducting engagements will take her to Chile, China, Germany, Italy, Korea, London, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland.
Falletta has even been likened to some of history’s greatest conductors—Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, and Leonard Bernstein. She is thrilled and flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as these figures that she has always admired, all for different reasons. But at the same time, she explains, “Everyone finds their own way in conducting.”
For Falletta, finding her own way as a music director has meant a combination of thoughtful, adventurous programming and a commitment to recording, along with a strong sense of solidarity with the musicians in her orchestras.
Her “formula” for programming a concert season is to create a mix of traditional standards, contemporary and American music, and works by lesser-known Romantic composers such as Joseph Suk.
“The music that we already know is only the tip of the iceberg. We have to be investigators to find what else is out there,” Falletta advises. “Our audiences in Buffalo and Virginia have become very much intrigued by contemporary music and new discoveries from the past. I think that keeps our orchestra world alive. If we were to only play music from before 1900, we would become a beautiful museum—we wouldn’t be reflecting the life of our time.” Appropriately, BPO recordings won two Grammy Awards in 2009 for a recording of Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan by contemporary composer John Corigliano.
Falletta records extensively with both BPO and VSO. Altogether, she has more than five-dozen albums to her name. She sees the recording process as important for both national recognition and orchestra development.
“It’s a statement about the music we believe in and who we are at that point in time,” Falletta says. “It strengthens our national presence, and it’s also important for our local audiences to realize that we are making recordings that are heard all over the world.”
With stakes that high, orchestra musicians work to be at their best for each recording session. “When you’re recording, all of a sudden, every minute counts and it’s forever,” Falletta says. “We have to be totally focused, totally ready, listen really attentively to each other, and think so keenly. As we get used to doing that, we begin to work that way in concerts as well, so it sharpens all of our skills.”
However, it was seeing how well orchestral musicians work together off stage that encouraged Falletta to become a member of the AFM 25 years ago. “I respected so much what the union was doing for the musicians,” she explains. “There was a positive spirit of working together and a desire for musicians to be at the core of orchestra decisions. Becoming a member was a way I could show how much I appreciated what the union does for musicians—and I have felt that way ever since.”
Falletta not only celebrates the collaborative spirit between musicians, but also the individualities that make each of the orchestras she works with unique. She describes BPO as an orchestra with a deep, low center of gravity and a European sound. VSO, she says, is a very intelligent orchestra with a knack for learning music quickly and accompanying soloists remarkably well.
“Every orchestra is different, with its own personality, sound, and way of making music,” Falletta says. “I try to let each orchestra be itself—to not want the Buffalo Philharmonic to sound like the Virginia Symphony or the Ulster Orchestra. Each individual musician brings a different background and approach, and different feelings about music. When you let the orchestra shine and reveal itself, and let all of the musicians be who they are, then every concert is different.”
That philosophy carries over into orchestra management; according to Falletta, letting each orchestra be itself is the key to keeping it healthy. When it comes to challenges within the industry, Falletta insists, “There’s not one single solution. Each orchestra has to look and see who they are and who they serve.”
Falletta has kept that in mind while working as artistic advisor to the former Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, which is now re-emerging as the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. “There is a very diverse community in Hawaii—Asian, Latino, Native Hawaiian—and we needed to find a way to reflect and serve that community,” she says. “That means that the Hawaii Symphony will play music that probably wouldn’t be played by the Buffalo Philharmonic. In the past, you just looked to an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic or The Cleveland Orchestra and strived to be like that, but that’s not the case anymore.”
Each orchestra is as unique as its musicians, and for Falletta, that’s what keeps things exciting. “You take a lot from the musicians that you work with,” she reflects. “You change and you grow, and it’s a great journey.”
“Becoming a member was a way I could show how much I appreciated what the union does for musicians—and I have felt that way ever since.” Photo: Cheryl Gorski