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How to Make 18 Million Cracks—with a Baton: A Few Words with Conductor JoAnn Falletta

September 10, 2008

The opening of the 2008-09 Concert Season, conductor JoAnn Falletta is celebrating her 10th anniversary as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, an orchestra frequently shortlisted as one the best in the United States and which continues to thrive even as subscriptions are down elsewhere. Falletta’s is a name also familiar from recordings; in just short of two decades she has managed to make more than 50 of them for labels such as Naxos, Koch, Delos, Albany, and others.The list of orchestras that Falletta has guest conducted over the years—posted at her website at—is so dense that it’s blinding. However, if this were 1978, rather than 2008, such credentials as Falletta has racked up as a conductor would have been impossible. AMG’s Uncle Dave Lewis caught up with Maestro Falletta over the phone in late July.

AMG: When we first met, it was during the promotion for the Golabek Sisters’ Koch disc of Poulenc’s Babar; you were still with the Long Beach Symphony then.

JoAnn Falletta: Indeed, I have been away from California a long time now. I’m very happy in Buffalo, but I still remember California, and miss the orchestra.

AMG: Do you have a jet-setting life, holding down posts in many places and commuting, like some conductors?

JAF: Well I also led the Virginia Symphony in Norfolk, so I would travel back and forth between Virginia and Buffalo. Before I came to the Buffalo Philharmonic, I had the position in Virginia and went back and forth between Norfolk and Long Beach! I do conduct in different parts of the world, but it works out to be a very good mix. Even when I was commuting between Long Beach and Virginia, I found it stimulating.

AMG: When did you decide you wanted to be a conductor?

JAF: I fell in love with the symphony orchestra—and the repertoire—when I was a little girl. My family and I went to lots of concerts, and I was so impressed with the orchestra and the fact that so many people were focused together, the level of cooperation, everyone working together to make it happen.

I owe a debt to my great teachers—Sixten Ehrling and Jorge Mester. I also took master classes with Leonard Bernstein at Juilliard; he was an icon, someone who really showed what an American musician could do. On the podium he was spectacularly flamboyant and uninhibited—wonderful!

AMG: To most outsiders, the Buffalo Philharmonic is known for the legacy of Lukas Foss and its commitment to contemporary music. Is that reputation something you maintain with the orchestra now?

JAF: In Buffalo, we continue to perform American composers and we build on what Lukas Foss did, which made Buffalo world-famous for spearheading new American music. At the time that Foss did it, it was sometimes challenging to audiences; they were so overwhelmed by the transition from the classical European model of Josef Krips and William Steinberg to the contemporary American music of the 1960s. But he established the American voice in Buffalo, and this is a part of our legacy.

We have had our own record label in Buffalo for several years—Beau Fleuve—and work extensively with Naxos. Right now, we are working on a multi-CD project with John Corigliano on Naxos—a release this September including Three Hallucinations from Altered States and the world premiere recording of Mr. Tambourine—Seven Poems of Bob Dylan, with a second CD including Phantasmagoria and the Red Violin Concerto with our concertmaster, Michael Ludwig. It’s great to be able to work with John, both in rehearsal and in the recording studio. We will also be releasing on Naxos the world premiere recording of Daron Hagen’s opera Shining Brow, based on the early years of Frank Lloyd Wright and a John Adams recording including The Chairman Dances, Slonimsky’s Earbox, and Naïve and Sentimental Music. We have been doing a lot of new music, including composers such as Miguel del Aquila, Michael Daugherty, Jacob Druckman, Lukas Foss, Federico Ibarra, Aaron Kernis, Arturo Marquez, Behzad Ranjbaran, Roberto Sierra, Joan Tower, Persis Vehar, Chen Yi, and Ellen Zwilich; the audiences have been very receptive to it.

AMG: I might be asking for trouble in saying so, but it appears to me that composers are producing new music a bit easier to deal with than they did in Foss’ time.

JAF: Many composers now have a great desire to be vitally connected with the audience. They care about communication, and audiences open up to the music because the quality is very high. Composers are anxious to make those connections, and it doesn’t mean that they have to write romantic music, or in a conservative style.

AMG: Heretofore, I have been scrupulously avoiding the inevitable “female conductor question,” but there is still the notion that women conductors are unusual. I saw one of Antonia Brico’s last concerts, and I came away thinking that she was more impressive than the music she made. That was 30 years ago, but recently when your colleague Marin Alsop took over Baltimore there was some measure of opposition, and the Vienna Philharmonic still bars women members as a matter of policy. Where do think we might be now, versus what it was like in Brico’s time?

JAF: One major difference is that we have equal access to training; women conductors no longer need to be self-educated, as we are accepted in conservatories. No one here in the United States seems to feel it is a big deal anymore, though Europe is still more conservative in some respects. But there is still much more acceptance then there was just 20 years ago. Bear in mind that it’s a difficult profession for men or women, but it has changed a lot for the better in these respects.

- Allmusic Blog, 5 September 2008


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