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Forever Young – An Interview with JoAnn Falletta

June 01, 2009
JoAnn Falletta
JoAnn Falletta
Photo: Fred Stucker

JoAnn Falletta has been hailed by The New York Times as ‘one of the finest conductors of her generation’, while the Washington Post acclaimed her as having ‘Toscanini’s tight control over ensemble, Walter’s affectionate balancing of inner voices, Stokowski’s gutsy showmanship, and a controlled frenzy worthy of Bernstein’. She currently holds the positions of Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Advisor to the Honolulu Symphony, and generously took time out of her busy schedule to share her thoughts on several of her Naxos recordings, on working with the Buffalo Philharmonic and why the ‘crisis’ in classical music today is nothing new in this interview with Stephen Schafer.

STEPHEN: JoAnn, you have recorded several critically acclaimed albums for Naxos which cover a lot of ground from an innovative Schubert disc to exciting new music by John Corigliano. Could you tell us a little about each of these?

SCHUBERT, F.: Symphony, ‘Death and the Maiden’ (arr. A. Stein) • Symphony No. 8, ‘Unfinished’ (completed by B. Newbould and M. Venzago)
Naxos 8.572051

Schubert’s music has been arranged by many other composers, though few have succeeded in amplifying the astonishing drama and pathos of a masterpiece such as the Death and the Maiden Quartet as has Andy Stein, who writes: ‘I have tried to create a late classical / early Romantic symphony out of this great chamber work, so that it perhaps would sound as if Schubert himself had conceived it in this form’. The reconstruction of the Scherzo of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony is based on fragments from the composer’s notebooks. The last movement uses segments from Schubert’s incidental music for Rosamunde, written shortly after he had set aside the Symphony, and which scholars believe may have been intended for its finale.

JOANN: Since Schubert’s death at the age of 31, the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony has been a bit of a beautiful mystery, but research has shed new light on the composer’s original intentions. Schubert himself fully sketched the third movement for piano, and wrote twenty measures for full orchestra, giving a clear template of his plan for orchestration. Using these materials, Schubert scholar Brian Newbold completed a beautiful realization of the scherzo. The fourth movement was drawn from Schubert’s incidental music to Rosamunde. The composer had received a commission for the Rosamunde music while in the middle of the composition of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. In dire financial need, Schubert re-directed the material of the fourth movement into the large orchestral entr’acte of the play. Composer Mario Venzago reclaimed the music from Rosamunde and fashioned a dramatic finale to the symphony, creating a powerful and fully realized Schubert Symphony in B minor.

The other work on the CD is equally unique—a stunning transcription of Schubert’s tragic ‘Death and the Maiden’ string quartet for full orchestra by composer Andy Stein. Using authentic Schubertian orchestration, Stein has given us a ‘new’ Symphony in D minor, filled with dark passion and poetic lyricism—a brilliant expansion of Schubert’s quartet masterpiece.

CORIGLIANO, J.: Mr. Tambourine Man • 3 Hallucinations
Naxos 8.559331

…A colleague suggested that I look into the poetry of the songs of Bob Dylan. Having not yet listened to the songs, I decided to send away for the texts only … and found many of them to be every bit as beautiful and as immediate as I had heard—and surprisingly well-suited to my own musical language…these would be in no way arrangements, or variations, or in any way derivations of the music of the original songs, which I decided to not hear before the cycle was complete…I intended to treat the Dylan lyrics as the poems I found them to be. Nor would their settings make any attempt at pop or rock writing. I wanted to take poetry I knew to be strongly associated with popular art and readdress it in terms of concert art—crossover in the opposite direction, one might say. Dylan granted his permission, and I set to work. John Corigliano

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) and I were thrilled with the prospect of working with the great American composer John Corigliano, in the premiere recording of what is one of the true masterworks of this composer. In previous works, John had worked with American poets Dylan Thomas (A Dylan Thomas Trilogy, which the Nashville Symphony has recorded on Naxos 8.559394), Stephen Spender, Richard Wilbur, and William M. Hoffman, but it was a dramatic, innovative and inspired decision to set to music the text of Bob Dylan, a giant of the American pop scene who deeply touched the life of a generation of Americans. The work started life in 2000 as a song cycle for American soprano Sylvia McNair, and it works beautifully in that form. But with an orchestration tour-de-force and the use of amplified soprano to allow a classically-trained concert singer to project over the orchestra without incorporating an operatic sound, John has created a work of incredible scope and drama.

Complementing Mr. Tambourine Man is the atmospheric score from Ken Russell’s film Altered States which captures the psychedelic hallucinogenic ethos of the 1960s.

STEPHEN: The BPO’s Naxos Respighi disc was nominated for a Grammy Award (Vetrate di chiesa, Impressioni Brasiliane & Rossiniana on 8.557711). But special congratulations are due for winning the Grammy Awards for the Corigliano CD—it’s certainly an unusual project. How did you come to be involved in it? What new light does John Corigliano’s setting shed on these iconic Dylan songs?

JOANN: The BPO was very excited about the two Grammy awards for the Corigliano disc. I should add that I had first performed the Corigliano Mr Tambourine Man with soprano Hila Plitmann a few years earlier with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I was struck at that point with the magnitude of this work and the extraordinary artistry of Hila Plitmann. With no prior recording of this work, I proposed the recording of this work to Klaus Heymann, president of Naxos and to John and everything fell into place. John was incredibly supportive of the project and came up to Buffalo for the rehearsals, performance and the recording sessions.

Dylan’s text is extraordinarily powerful whether in their original settings or in the new context of these ‘art’ songs. The poems include Mr Tambourine Man, Clothes Line, Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, All Along the Watchtower, Chimes of Freedom and Forever Young. The orchestral garb renders an added dimension to the text. For example, the simplicity and transparent orchestration of Forever Young seems particularly poignant after the orchestral tour-de-force of the preceding movements.

STEPHEN: The Buffalo Philharmonic has also recorded Corigliano’s ‘Red Violin’ Concerto for Naxos.

JOANN: With the superb BPO / Corigliano collaboration on the Mr Tambourine Man / Altered States CD it seemed a natural to follow this with a second BPO / Corigliano CD featuring the ‘Red Violin’ Violin Concerto and Phantasmagoria. The BPO has an extraordinary concertmaster in Michael Ludwig, who offers a riveting, virtuoso performance of this work. Phantasmagoria, a fantasy on his opera The Ghosts of Versailles, is a virtuoso work for orchestra capturing the opera buffa spirit of the opera mirroring in accelerated fashion the overall architecture of the 3 hour opera.

STEPHEN: Michael also plays on your Naxos recording of Dohnányi’s Violin Concertos Nos 1 and 2, this time with you conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. And there’s another Naxos recording being released of this somewhat neglected Hungarian composer, isn’t there?

JOANN: In February 2008 the BPO recorded for Naxos a CD featuring the Symphonic Minutes, Suite in F sharp minor and Variations on a Nursery Tune of Ernő Dohnányi. The disc afforded the BPO the opportunity to expand outside the realm of American and Germanic composers, to feature this major romantic Hungarian composer. Here again, it allows to present to our audience and to record extraordinary works that are not programmed in the United States with that much regularity.

STEPHEN: And there’s a remarkable opera in your Naxos discography that has special relevance for Buffalo.

HAGEN, D.: Shining Brow [Opera]
Naxos 8.669020–21

JOANN: Being music director of an American orchestra requires a vital artistic partnership with the community to make the symphony a vibrant thread in the tapestry of life there. Equally important is the programming of contemporary works so as to position the orchestra to reflect current society as well being a repository of some of the greatest achievements of Western civilization.

So it was a great fit and opportunity to perform and record in Buffalo a contemporary opera by one of America’s foremost composers, Daron Hagen, on the early life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Buffalo is a city of great architecture—Louis Sullivan, Edward B Green, Henry Hobson Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright. One of the buildings in the opera’s plot line is the Darwin-Martin house in Buffalo which has just completed a $30,000,000 renovation.

STEPHEN: And there’s a forthcoming Naxos release of Richard Strauss’s Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten, Symphonic Fragment from Joseph’s Legend, Symphonic Suite from Der Rosenkavalier.

JOANN: Yes, it was a wonderful opportunity to record three major suites from Strauss’s opera and ballet output—two of which, the Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten and the Symphonic Fragment from Joseph’s Legend, are unjustly under-programmed in the United States. The BPO developed a European string sound under music directors like William Steinberg and Joseph Krips continuing through to the present making the BPO well suited for this repertoire. It was also a great pleasure to do this recording working with Naxos’ master engineer, Tim Handley.

STEPHEN: Are there any other Naxos recordings in the pipeline?

Ken Fuchs, Michael Fine, Thomas Stacy and Falletta at the 2006 GRAMMY Awards
Ken Fuchs, Michael Fine, Thomas Stacy and Falletta at the 2006 GRAMMY Awards

JOANN: The story of the music of composer Marcel Tyberg, who died in the holocaust, and its travels to Buffalo, NY is a tragic but poignant story. Tyberg, born in Austria, moved to Abbazia Italy in 1916. In September 1943 the German government took control of Abbazia and had access to the censuses of Jews taken by the Constabulary of Fiume at Abbazia and Laurana. In this census Tyberg and his mother declared that they were religiously Catholic but, because Mrs Tyberg’s great-grandfather was Jewish, racially Jewish. In anticipation of his imminent deportation to a concentration camp, Tyberg entrusted all his compositions to his friend Dr Milan Mihich and with Dr Mihich’s death in 1948 this music was entrusted to his son and a former harmony student of Tyberg, Enrico Mihich. Dr Enrico Mihich eventually settled in Buffalo, NY as a doctor and researcher at the famed Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

He presented this music to me and a realization of a cross generational legacy began. The CD will feature Tyberg’s last major orchestral work—his third symphony, along with his Trio for violin, cello and piano played by BPO principals Michael Ludwig, violin, Roman Mekinulov cello with the superb pianist Ya-Fei Chuang on piano.

And planned for May 2010 is the recording of a CD of the early works of Josef Suk written at the start of the 20th century including the Scherzo Fantastique, Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra with Michael Ludwig on violin, and the Fairy Tale Suite (Pohadka).

STEPHEN: Many of your Naxos recordings feature unusual repertoire. What attracts you these interesting recording projects? Do you also regularly present these works in concert? How are they received by concert audiences?

JOANN: I am fascinated by the seeming limitlessness of the orchestral repertoire. It is as if the body of work is a vast iceberg and we are only playing the tip of it! Due to marketing and perceived audience preferences, it is easy in the United States to keep programming the core repertoire. But it is very exciting to offer these works to the BPO audiences who, in turn, have very enthusiastically received it.

Some of the Naxos recordings are directly taken from performances, but in addition all works from studio recordings are also first scheduled for performance. With the level of orchestral playing today, very fine recordings can be produced from a ‘studio session only’ approach, but there is so much to be said for the refinements that take place in a work through multiple rehearsals and performances.

STEPHEN: You’ve been hailed as one of the finest conductors of your generation (congratulations, again!). What do you aim to achieve as a conductor and how do you go about this?

JOANN: For me the most important thing about conducting is being keenly aware that the orchestra itself is actually making the music, not the baton! I firmly believe that each performance comes from the collective hearts, brains and spirit of the musicians who are involved, and that because of that, each orchestra’s performance will be unique.

I can’t speak for other conductors, but I know that for me it is critical to come to the music with a strong interpretation and understanding of the piece, but that is only the beginning—I draw much inspiration from the orchestra itself. It is very important to leave a great deal of room for the ‘orchestra’s interpretation’—individually and as a group. Within the framework of my understanding of the structure, harmonic fabric and propulsion of the work, I like to be flexible in allowing the orchestra to play a major role in informing the performance, revealing their own strengths and personality.

Does the orchestra’s hall enable them to play refined and varied dynamics? The conductor should allow that to happen! Do the woodwind players revel in their individuality of approaches? So should the conductor! Does the orchestra enjoy rhythmic flexibility and rubato? Does the string section have a unified approach to articulation and bow stroke? Does the brass section exemplify brilliance or warmth in their artistic approach? Each orchestra has its own sound that can either shine with the help of the conductor, or be subjugated to an imagined sound that exists only in the head of the maestro. To me it is a delight that each orchestra I conduct can sound quite unique in exactly the same repertoire—and what a shame it would be to try to make each orchestra sound exactly alike!

I strongly encourage musicians in an orchestra NOT to abdicate artistic responsibility—rather, to listen to each other intently, to respond to what they are hearing, to play chamber music on a grand scale, to take risks.

I strongly encourage musicians in an orchestra NOT to abdicate artistic responsibility—rather, to listen to each other intently, to respond to what they are hearing, to play chamber music on a grand scale, to take risks.

For my part, I must listen to all of them at every moment—to understand their musical personality, to support their artistic spirit, to highlight their talents, to provide a framework in which they can excel, to make music in a completely personal way with each performance and each group of musicians.

This ‘active’ listening is key, for both the musicians and myself. I find that orchestras are very open to experimentation and new ideas, if their personality and musical ideas are respected as well. The result is a rich and interesting mixture of interpretive elements—a blend of what the orchestra has done before (together and individually) and the different experiences and background of the conductor. Music is fluid, always changing, evolving, holding discoveries for all of us, in each performance. The orchestral experience can be one of amazement, joy and unexpected realizations.

STEPHEN: Pardon me asking the inevitable question, but have you faced any particular challenges as a woman excelling in what has traditionally been ‘a man’s field’?

JOANN: In terms of being a woman conductor I must say that from my first conducting position in the early 1980s, I have experienced very little sexist attitude from the musicians or the audience. I have always felt welcomed in my positions with the Denver Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, Long Beach Symphony, Virginia Symphony Buffalo Philharmonic and as a guest conductor.

I should add that my ten years as music director of the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco was a truly unique experience. The orchestra was dedicated to the performance of works of women composers, both contemporary and historical. The orchestra of women played largely to an audience of women, and was definitely not your typical concert experience. I enjoyed a beautiful camaraderie with those players and they had a special relationship with each other.

The true pioneers were the woman conductors one to two generations before me.

I am very fortunate that I started at a time when the field was truly beginning to open up to women conductors. When you look at the overall statistics of conductors by gender (taking into account university, choral and community positions as well) the percentage of women conductors is quite significant. As young women gain experience, we will see more and more women conducting at the highest levels.

STEPHEN: What advice would you give to aspiring female conductors?

Leonard Bernstein & Falletta, 1985
Leonard Bernstein & Falletta, 1985

JOANN: My advice to aspiring conductors would be the same for both men and women—that is: if music and conducting is truly one’s passion than it should be pursued. It is certainly helpful to play an orchestral instrument (although I myself am a guitarist), study theory, orchestration, music history, etc, and immerse oneself in music. Look to conduct a group of friends in small ensembles to gain conducting experience.

STEPHEN: You’ve worked with many of the world’s finest orchestras. What’s special and exciting about working with the Buffalo Philharmonic?

JOANN: Actually I feel that every orchestra is special and through some uncertain means, seems to possess a collective spirit unique to that ensemble.

However the music director relationship is quite different than the guest conducting experience in so many ways such as overseeing the entry of new members to the orchestra and creating stylistic sensibilities. The Buffalo Philharmonic is special and exciting in that it is an amalgam of European and American styles. The string sound has a fullness and an old world opulence that carries back to the time of Joseph Krips and William Steinberg. But it also has the flexibility and virtuosity required of contemporary and American music that came from Lukas Foss and Michael Tilson-Thomas. The BPO has an extremely rich music director lineage including more recently Julius Rudel, Semyon Bychkov and Maximiano Valdes.

STEPHEN: Do you think that classical music (and contemporary classical music in particular) needs to be presented to audiences in different ways today than it was in the past? Is there a ‘crisis’ in classical music or are tastes and interests simply shifting along generational lines? How does you experience suggest to you the best way forward through the 21st Century? In particular, given the troubled beginning to the new millennium, do you see classical music playing a particular role in helping us understand our increasingly turbulent and globalised world?

JOANN: The startling ongoing question of the crisis of classical music seems to have crystallized the anxiety and fear of an entire artistic industry. Speculations about the demise of classical music—and the symphony orchestra in particular—seem ubiquitous today. We can hardly escape from the harbingers of doom in books, magazine and newspapers who avidly proclaim the state of crisis into which the music world has fallen.

Some authors attempt to identify the various villains responsible—celebrity artists who demand exorbitant fees, rapacious agents and record company executives who ruthlessly impose commercialism on artistic ideals, aloof superstar conductors, fecklessly greedy orchestra musicians, composers of incomprehensible atonal music, fickle and dwindling audiences—but very few propose valid solutions to the problems upon with they enthusiastically expound.

In reality, the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.

Of course, such dire predictions make ‘good copy’, since bad news and gloomy prognostications are more titillating to the average reader. Classical music may be in deep trouble, it seems. Is the 21st century the age that will see the disappearance of the glorious tradition of the symphony orchestra? Musicians of today wonder with heavy hearts if classical music is, indeed, slated to ‘go down on their watch’. Article upon essay upon book add layers of worry, helplessness and frustration about the future of music. We yearn to return to the ‘golden age’ when music and its importance were never in doubt.
When exactly was that ‘golden age’? The only thing about which we can be certain is that the golden age is never the present. In reality, the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.

STEPHEN: I like that! But by the same token, musical styles constantly change, whether over the decades or over the centuries…and novelty can be frightening!

JOANN: In 1913, horrified critics foretold that Stravinsky’s ground-breaking The Rite of Spring would destroy music. Earlier, similar claims were made for decades about the works of Richard Wagner, who was branded a moral degenerate. Even earlier still, Verdi (whose music is now considered the very heart of the operatic corpus) had been accused of ruining the treasured bel canto style with his dramatic vocal writing. Many music lovers in the early 19th century were terrified of the growing influence of the iconoclastic romanticist Ludwig van Beethoven, blaming his mystifying modern music on his deafness. Instrumental virtuosi such as the now venerated Paganini and Liszt were greeted with the certainty that serious music was being vandalized by their flashy pyrotechnical excess. Even Monteverdi was reviled at the beginning of the 17th century for being overly expressive, his new style an affront to the great Renaissance madrigal tradition.

STEPHEN: And I’m sure there were fans of the ‘good old fashioned music’ who deplored the innovations of Leonin and Perotin, too!

JOANN: A great deal of this artistic unrest comes from the conflict of old and new, and the tremendous fear of the unknown or seemingly unintelligible. Consider the tragically poetic statement of Heinrich Schenker, one of the most influential music theorists of the 20th century. In 1910, targeting the compositions of Wagner and the late Romantics, he wrote, ‘We are witnessing a Herculaneum and Pompeii for music. Musical culture is ravaged. The foundation of music is destroyed. That most dream-like and artful of arts- music- is no more.’ When we realize that the artists to whom he referred are now the most beloved composers in the concert hall, it becomes clear that audiences were eventually able to overcome their horror at the challenges of the new Romantic aesthetic. In 1958, composer Milton Babbitt bleakly acknowledged that classical music held little attraction, and that ‘the general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in music’. Yet many people today would point to the 1950s and 60s as a period of tremendous musical vitality and keen interest.

It may also be constructive for us to realize that somber warnings about the twilight of classical music are nothing new. The eras which appear to foretell the extinguishing of civilization are, in retrospect, often revealed as periods of healthy growth and needed change. Apocalyptic vision can be the mirror image of a nostalgic longing for an irretrievable (and perhaps imaginary) Utopia. While some artists and listeners eagerly embrace the excitement of the frontier, others turn anxiety into anger, shock, and forecasts of doom.

In 1945 Theodore Adorno bemoaned the radio as the root of the crisis. He stated, ‘Today music functions as a commodity, and is consumed like other consumers’ goods. It is the ideal of Aunt Jemima’s ready mix for pancakes extended to the field of music. The listener suspends all intellectual activity and is content with consuming and evaluating it s gustatory qualities—just as if the music which tasted best were also the best music possible.’ In 1753 Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already gloomily predicted the end of the art form: ‘I find that the further our music advances the more it is actually deteriorating.’ Such concerns were not new even then. As far back as 200 A.D., scholars were lamenting the moribund state of the music world. The learned Athenaeus wrote, ‘In olden times the feeling for nobility was always maintained in music, and retained the orderly beauty appropriate to it. Now music has moved into a state of grave corruption. We will get together, few though we be, and recall what music used to…’ Even in 200 A.D., apparently, there was longing for a ‘golden age’ of the past!

We encounter problems today that are endemic to our own 21st century environment, and in actively seeking solutions we are doing our part in developing the art form.

Battered by grim prophecies, long struggling against the supposed ‘barbarians at the gate’, the world of art music has nonetheless managed to survive for a recorded history of over two thousand years. For all the strident cries of the industry Cassandras, serious music perhaps is facing no more life-threatening crises today than it has dealt with over the centuries.

We encounter problems today that are endemic to our own 21st century environment, and in actively seeking solutions we are doing our part in developing the art form. Change is the one certainty of our lives, and the challenge of the transformation of our arts world is a daunting one for all of us. But rather than pronouncing the last rites over a terminal patient, we may be generating necessary mutations that through the prism of time may help us re-evaluate our period as one of progress and innovation. Each century has seen its own crisis in music, survived it and metamorphosed into the flowering of new, often astonishing artistic achievement.

Perhaps the real truth about our art form lies—not in dismal prognostications—but in the writing of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato: ‘music is dazzling, passionate, eternal’. Twenty-five hundred years of performers and listeners, of inspiration and excellence, of enlightened minds and soaring hearts have proven the wisdom of those radiant words.

STEPHEN: I’m glad I asked you about that. It’s rare to hear such an impassioned, informed and articulate consideration of these issues! But when you’re not involved in music, what do you like to do to relax? Sport? Reading? Family? Friends? or just enjoying ‘the sound of silence’ for a change…

JOANN: I enjoy bike riding, reading and writing poetry.

STEPHEN: Is there anything else you’d like to say about conducting, recording, concertizing?

JOANN: I would just encourage people to continue their own exploration of music and would like to thank Naxos and Klaus Heymann for their passion and dedication to classical music.

STEPHEN: Well, a far as I’m concerned, and I’m sure music lovers the world over would agree with me, the pleasure is ours! Thanks so much for your time.

JoAnn Falletta Biography & Discography