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Woman At Work – JoAnn Falletta Talks With Jeremy Siepmann

February 23, 2011

Not many conductors find themselves likened in a single review to Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Stokowski and Bernstein—four very disparate figures united mainly by their pre-eminence in the story of 20th-century music. Only in such a context (the review appeared in The Washington Post) could JoAnn Falletta feel short-changed (not that she does) by the more circumspect critic in The New York Times who described her merely as ‘one of the finest conductors of her generation.’ Though she has guest conducted major orchestras around the world, she remains loyal to the two of which she has been Music Director for more than a decade: the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic. The present season is awash with anniversaries, marking the 20th anniversary of her directorship in Virginia, the 12th of her tenure in Buffalo and the tenth year of the highly fruitful contract between the BPO and Naxos.

Falletta is one of the regrettably small number of women to have made a major breakthrough into what’s long been regarded as a man’s domain. But why have the dice been so loaded in favour of men? More to the point, perhaps, why have they been so loaded against women?

Naxos is proud to number among its recording artists outstanding female conductors from around the world such as JoAnn Falletta, Marin Alsop and Gisele Ben-Dor

‘You know I really think it’s because our profession is so traditional. We’re basically making music in the way that Mozart was making music hundreds of years ago. And the very weight of this tradition, this wonderful tradition, has naturally made change slower. When it happens, though, it really sticks. I think we’ve come a very long way, especially in the last 20 years. People now are no longer surprised to see a woman on the podium. At the same time, the percentage of women getting substantial chances to be heard is still very small. Progress is definitely being made, though, and I’m confident it’ll continue.’

For all her unforced femininity and her quiet, urbane demeanour, Falletta has been a formidable activist, doing more for the cause of women than many a more strident colleague. At what stage, then, did she decide to take up arms against tradition? ‘Oh I never did. I never did. I wanted to be a conductor when I was nine years old. And for years I was quite unaware that women weren’t ‘supposed’ to conduct. I simply, and very naïvely, fell in love with the symphony orchestra, and with the repertoire. I fell in love with the whole concept of musicians working together to create unbelievable beauty. It was only when I was 16 or 17, and eagerly heading for music school, that I began to hear people saying “But wait! Women have never really been successful as conductors. And it’s still very difficult.” I think in a way my naïve attitude was very good. I went into the profession simply because I had to. For sheer love of the music. I certainly didn’t do it to prove anything, to change anything.’

Instrumentalists, on the whole, have their instruments at home. They carry them about with them, they travel abroad with them, they practice on them. Conductors have no such luxury. They have to have an orchestra. In the early years of her career was it harder, because she was a woman, for Falletta to find the engagements that every conductor needs? ‘You know it’s hard to say. When I entered the profession, the doors were really opening for women. Some people might say that this could even have been an advantage. It all depended on the particular situation you were confronting. In the US and the UK the sight of a woman on the podium wasn’t greeted with the scepticism that it might have been at that time in Germany or Austria, where I think perhaps even today it’s more difficult to gain acceptance. But I’ve never gone looking for examples of prejudice against women, because I knew I’d find them. And in finding them, I knew I wouldn’t really be able to work in the way that I want to. To work freely. In a sense I wouldn’t have the confidence to really project how I felt about the music, which of course was very important to me. And I’m sure that some scepticism still exists. But we have to find the strength within us to get on with it and do our job.’

So much for audiences and critics. What about the attitude of orchestras themselves? Some, in Europe, have only lately admitted women players, and then only a very few. Surely this kind of thing must intensify the challenge to women conductors. ‘It makes it harder, certainly. Especially in places like Germany and Austria, where I’d be on the podium and there’d be perhaps five women in the orchestra (and those women would tell me, when they took me aside, how difficult it still was for them). Sometimes you’re greeted with a kind of icy politeness that still expresses a kind of scepticism, if not downright hostility. But generally, musicians want to make music. They want their time utilised well, they want their talents supported, they want an environment in which they can succeed. When that begins to happen in rehearsal, the scepticism tends to dissipate. It may take three or four rehearsals for people to loosen their prejudices, but in the end they do. I think of Mexico, which when I first started going there was a very sort of macho environment, but even there, that changed.’

Falletta is known not only as an outstanding woman conductor but as a vibrant champion of women composers. How, I wondered, has she gone about researching the vast heartlands of these neglected artists? ‘This all began when I took on the musical directorship of the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco. Up until that point, I’m embarrassed to say, I actually didn’t know any women composers. In many ways I’d had a very traditional conductor’s upbringing, so to speak, and women composers don’t tend to be a part of that. But when I went to San Francisco to work with the orchestra, I discovered a wealth of music from the past, and also a great deal of music by contemporary composers, and this really changed my life, in a very joyful way—because I was looking at music that had never been played. There were no recordings, no treatises on performance practices, no experts to be consulted…I had to come up with an interpretation that derived entirely from the music itself. And this gave me a new perspective in looking at all music. Having done so much with the music of women, I began to look at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in the same way. It fundamentally altered my perspectives on music in general. It’s such an adventure! I now approach every score as though it were new—even if I’ve done it dozens of times. It also deepened and sharpened my understanding of new music, because many of these pieces had just been written, some by young women in the early part of their career, others by composers who were already making a solid reputation.’

Beijing New Music Ensemble
Eli Marshall, conductor

And how, if at all, has Falletta’s approach to conducting been influenced by working with living composers? Has it substantially changed her perspectives? ‘I think it’s made me much more flexible. In San Francisco I worked with a wonderful composer called Chen Yi, who’d come to us from mainland China. She was our composer in residence, so we played a great deal of her music. When I was applying my Western training and sensibility to divine what sound she wanted, what phrasing etc., she would sometimes say ‘No, no. It should sound like this:’, and then she’d sing it to me, in a way that for me, as a Western trained musician, growing up with Western music, was actually quite shocking. It was the same for the orchestra. And I realised that there’s so much music in the world that one has to keep an open mind. Just by singing to me how she felt about what she’d written, she completely changed my concept of music—opening my mind to other alternatives, other sounds, other possibilities of making music.’

No conductor, of course, starts off with an orchestra. Most begin as instrumentalists. And that experience can help to shape them as conductors. Was this true in Falletta’s case? ‘Especially for a conductor, my background is a little unusual. I started playing classical guitar when I was seven, and I still play, and perform on it, today. It was my entrée into the whole world of music. And for me, the guitar (which is so personal, so intimate, so suited to small groups) is the most wonderful foil for the art of conducting (which is so public and involves so many people). As a conductor it influenced me in two very significant ways. First of all, I did a great deal of accompanying, which involved a lot of very acute listening. This has helped me when accompanying soloists with the orchestra, and when accompanying different sections or players within the orchestra. But it also taught me a lot about direction, because the guitar, like the harpsichord, is an instrument that doesn’t sustain tone very well. So guitarists are always creating the illusion of sustaining; the illusion of a phrase—when the notes themselves aren’t actually doing that. We get positively obsessed with the continuation of a phrase, with this impression of momentum that we create through various techniques. Being so focused on this sense of forward movement gave me a certain concept of architecture in performance, which for me is a matter of continuous flow. That direction, that propulsion, is something I’m acutely aware of, in virtually any piece. Also, I think the very act of playing an instrument is extremely important for a conductor. Our musicians spend their entire lives perfecting a vibrato, or producing the most beautiful sound in a particular register of their instrument. They become obsessed with that. If we, as conductors, forget what it feels like to put a finger against the fingerboard, and to create a perfect vibrato, if we forget what it feels like to pluck a string in such a way as to get exactly the sound we want, then I think we lose touch, in both senses, with something vitally important.’

Falletta’s newest releases, of music by Josef Suk and Arvo Pärt, pretty well box the 20th-century compass, at least where the calendar is concerned. I invited her to talk about these highly disparate composers, and about the works in question. ‘Well I must say, first of all, that throughout our association, Naxos has been just an unbelievable partner, with their continuing appetite for unusual music. They’re not a company that keeps churning out Beethoven symphonic cycles. That’s not what they’re about at all. They’ve encouraged us to seek out, discover and record all kinds of things, from an orchestral version of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet to a disc of Duke Ellington. They’ve opened the door to so many wonderful projects, and maintained an untiring appetite for the unusual, always encouraging us to find new voices. One thing I particularly like is finding old works that haven’t been played—romantic repertoire that has somehow fallen through the cracks, for whatever reason. You know people tend to think “Well if it were any good, we do know about it already.” I don’t believe that. There are lots of reasons why music gets lost. And finding older music, like Suk’s, for me is a great discovery.

People may know the name of Josef Suk because of his grandson, the great violinist of the same name, or they may remember him as Dvořák’s son-in-law, but they don’t know his music. And it’s music of extreme beauty—truly Czech music, Bohemian music, springing from that countryside, just as Dvořák’s music did. We recorded three of the early pieces, which were written at a time of great happiness in Suk’s life, and the music is a reflection both of that happiness and his close connection to his people, to their countryside. It’s just truly wonderful, wonderful music. And the violin fantasy is a real masterpiece. A genuinely great work, in my view, that’s hardly ever been performed, or recorded. I think there’s only a handful of records that have ever been made of it. The soloist in our recording is Michael Ludwig, an absolutely marvellous violinist who just revels in the work’s combination of deep romanticism, great sophistication, considerable complexity and very considerable virtuosity. It also requires a thinker, and Michael fills the bill in every respect.

‘In the case of Arvo Pärt, I was working with Ralph van Raat, a fantastic pianist who’s particularly involved with new music and loves the vocabulary of sound. When we’re dealing with something like Part, the sound is once again very nuanced, it’s intimate, and the vocabulary of the piano is greatly expanded by the tone colours he uses. This piece, Lamentate, is a very profound work, as is most of Pärt’s music. It has its roots in his spirituality, in his views on the pains of war, of our modern world, and the challenges that everyone faces; it deals with our individual confrontation with the pain and the tragedy that surrounds us, and how we make our way through that. It’s very profound music, as I say, and very beautiful music too.’

And the variety of Falletta’s output (and of course that of Naxos) continues apace with their next BPO production—that disc she mentioned devoted entirely to the music of Duke Ellington. Not the least of Falletta’s many gifts as a conductor is her effervescent enthusiasm for the sheer fun of making music. Examples forthcoming. Watch this space.

JoAnn Falletta Biography & Discography


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