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JoAnn Falletta discusses her recent Richard Strauss recording

March 6, 2010

JoAnn Falletta

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s newest Naxos CD went beyond the dreams of BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta. Falletta laughs as she recalls conferring with Naxos chief Klaus Heymann over what repertoire should go on the disk. Her suggestion was Ottorino Respighi, whose music the BPO has explored in the past. Heymann had bigger ideas. “He said, ‘I think of the BPO as a big music orchestra,’ ” she says. “And this idea came to him.” Heymann proposed Richard Strauss, a “big music” composer if ever there was one. He and Falletta settled on three very different masterpieces. The first was a suite from Strauss’ popular opera “Der Rosenkavalier.” Second would come a fantasy based on “The Woman Without a Shadow,” an opera Strauss wrote on supernatural themes. And rounding out the recording would be music drawn from an almost never-performed Strauss ballet, “The Legend of Joseph.

“The planning culminated in a dramatic conversation.

“When we were talking about this repertoire, which is incredibly difficult music, he said to me in his inimitable way, ‘Are the Buffaloes ready for this? ’ ” Falletta says.

“And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ “He said, ‘Go for it.’ ” The resulting disk is now available. Falletta loves it.

“They were absolutely ready,” she says. “It’s their music. They have made it their music. It’s their stamp on it.”

The British paper the Telegraph, reviewing the disk, agrees. The critic regretted what he described as a thin string sound, but otherwise gave the disk a hearty “Bravo.”

“The Buffalo horns (no pun intended) are splendid, the numerous solo parts are stylishly played, and conductor JoAnn Falletta conjures a Straussian ‘swing’ in the waltzes,” the reviewer wrote. Which is high praise, considering the music’s demands. In the words of a Naxos podcast that explores the disk: “Richard Strauss could use the palette of the orchestra like few composers before, during his lifetime, or since.”

‘Throw yourself into it’

Strauss’ music is sometimes likened to Gustav Klimt’s paintings. Gilded and glittering, it reflects the beauty and sensuality of pre-war Vienna.

Falletta described the music as “deeply personal.” She says the performances are as vivid as they are because the musicians, who recorded the pieces live in Kleinhans Music Hall, threw themselves into them.

“The music is extravagant, almost larger than life. It’s no-holds-barred,” she says. “They’re giving everything. The emotion is so intense, so deeply felt. It led them to be flexible, as if we were breathing together.”

The disk’s most famous music is the suite from “Der Rosenkavalier” (“The Knight of the Rose”). An 18th century romance inspired by Mozart operas and set off by glorious waltzes, “Der Rosenkavalier” sparked a craze in early 20th-century Europe the way “The Phantom of the Opera” did later.

“‘Rosenkavalier’ has a very bittersweet quality. It’s almost heartbreaking,” Falletta says. “There’s gaiety, glitter, joy, brilliance. At the core, though, the musicians captured what the piece was about—nostalgia, regret, missing the past, things that will never come again, love that was lost.”

Falletta did what she could to encourage them. “I would hear them individually—Pierre Roy’s oboe, John Fullam’s clarinet, Michael Ludwig’s violin, Alex Jokipii’s personality in the trumpet,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be a forced interpretation I imposed on them. I wanted them to give me their ideas. ‘How do you think those solos should be played?’

“You have to believe in it.”

“Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” or “The Woman Without a Shadow,” is full of the peculiar beauty that characterized Strauss’ music. But Falletta points out it has been staged rarely because of the challenges it poses.

“It involves all this magic happening. It’s hard to get your arms around the story.”

Late in life, Strauss looked back fondly on the music from the opera, and wove its themes into a “Symphonic Fantasy.” Because the piece isn’t often played, Falletta says, it appealed to Heymann at Naxos. “One of his missions is to introduce to people works they don’t know,” she says.

Nijinsky elopes

“The Legend of Joseph” is the piece bound to create the most buzz. Written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, the ballet’s premiere was originally supposed to have starred Diaghilev’s lover, the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

A strange series of events intervened. Before the premiere, Nijinsky took a sailing voyage. Diaghilev, because of a phobia of water, did not go with him. It was a fateful decision. Nijinsky fell in love with a Hungarian countess he met on board and eloped with her to Buenos Aires. Furious, Diaghilev fired him.

The ballet’s story is no less sensational. Drawn from the Book of Genesis, it tells of how the wife of Potiphar, an Egyptian, tries to seduce a young slave named Joseph (of the famous multicolored coat).

Falletta points out that while the Bible is condemning to Potiphar’s wife, Strauss’ music is kinder. “I always felt that Strauss has a little bit of sympathy with the person who is the villain,” she says.

“The most beautiful moment is when she fastens the slave collar around Joseph’s neck—Potiphar has bought him for her—and she falls in love with him,” Falletta says. “This is Strauss at his best. That moment is worth the whole piece.”

Another moment also shines. “The trumpet solo is an incredibly erotic moment,” Falletta says. “Potiphar’s wife is pursuing Joseph and at that moment she takes hold of his cloak and removes it. He’s standing there unclothed. It’s so dazzling. And that’s the trumpet solo. The musicians needed to know what these things meant.”

Alas, Strauss’ vivid depiction of the passionate Bible story hampered attempts to stage the ballet successfully. The music was custom-made for Nijinsky, who stayed married to his countess and out of Diaghilev’s good graces. No other dancer had Nijinsky’s abilities.

“Nijinsky was a legend. Supposedly he could appear to levitate,” Falletta says. “He was such a strong man, he could almost lift himself up and appear to hang in the air for a moment. Strauss wrote leaping music, for Nijinsky to leap in the air.

“If Nijinsky had danced this, maybe it would have been done again and again.”

The recording helps Naxos toward its goal of becoming a major classical music label, with a comprehensive catalog. The CD is also good for the orchestra.

“It’s important for us to do repertoire like this. It stretches us,” Falletta says.

“This is a great partnership. Recording really helps artistic development, in the kind of focus, concentration and excellence it demands. Everyone takes it incredibly seriously, because we know that thousands of people are going to hear this. It has helped us grow.”

– Mary Kunz Goldman, The Buffalo News, 18 October 2009

Read the article on The Buffalo News website


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