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JoAnn Falletta:

The Expectation of Excellence

JoAnn Falletta does not quite agree with the common perception of challenges faced by lady conductors--that they have to appear as frenetic divas or simply "imitate men." For one thing, she emphatically does not look like a man. The other thing is that she is much too dedicated to music to let wardrobe decisions get in the way of it.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable dressing in an off-the-shoulder, strapless violinist-type ensemble. The main issue is to let the music speak for itself and not let people be distracted by other things. That seems to have worked. Audiences have been very receptive, orchestras have been very receptive to women if they feel their time is being well spent. The orchestras work well and work seriously so that in the end it [gender] doesn't matter. People generally feel a lot more comfortable with the difference these days."

Falletta has joined the growing ranks of world-class female conductors and musical administrators who are establishing themselves in key orchestras and undertaking important projects like Naxos American Classics.

"Fifty years ago the idea of any woman being in a leadership role was unthinkable. The orchestras were nearly exclusively male. It was only when orchestras began to change that you saw women on the podium. Also, there's been a general change of attitude. Fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect is more important than being bombastically in charge of events. It is important to be someone who empowers the musicians rather than threatens and dominates them. Conductors use authority in a different way these days."

Not that arriving in a position to actually take charge of an orchestra has become easier--for either sex.

"It's a struggle for anyone to get into conducting, not just for women. It's a difficult profession. It requires tremendous tenacity, tremendous desire to learn and study. I entered it at a time when women were just beginning to gain acceptance in other fields. I decided not to look for prejudice because you can always find it. It's a question of discouragement sometimes for a woman, more than anything else. How are they to gather experience so they can conduct well when people only want them to conduct if they've had experience? I was very lucky that my experiences as a young conductor were appropriate for my level, stimulating and challenging without being over my head. That's how I made progress."

Nevertheless, there are still areas of opposition to the whole notion of women leading orchestras. How does she deal with that?

"I suspect that there are still some men who would rather not be conducted by women, but by focusing on the musical task at hand in an inclusive, mutual respectful framework, I find the problem can be largely avoided. Fortunately, this issue has become virtually non-existent in America. I think most women conductors feel that there are still places where after the rehearsal the men may go and have a beer afterwards and say 'Can you believe it that women are conducting now?' Most orchestras are looking for a good musical experience. Once they realise there's no power issue involved, tensions are diffused, and we can move towards reaching a common musical goal.

"Certainly I don't think women have any special insights into musical scores that men don't have. What I strive for is to be as flexible as possible with all the musicians I have before me. Of course, people do expect a different kind of performance [from a woman], less in control and less powerful, but it usually doesn't happen."

JoAnn Falletta is married to an "amazingly supportive" clarinettist turned computer scientist named Robert, and they live in New Jersey, although he also follows her steadfastly to the two other thirds of the dynamic New Yorker conductress' busy schedule: Virginia and Buffalo. They have collaborated in concerto performances in the Czech Republic, Mexico, Italy, China, and the United States and frequently play recitals together in JoAnn's dual capacity as a classical guitarist. They have three CDs together, the most recent featuring transcriptions for guitar, clarinet, and soprano of chamber works by Schubert.

Says Falletta of the less public side of her life, "Home life is very simple for us. I do good plain cooking for us both. When I am with the orchestras, everything is high-key. With meeting people all the time and entertaining after concerts, it's nice to have a little time when you can cook a simple pasta at home and just switch off for a while. We do our own housekeeping, we do our own cooking. It's also a place where I can spend time with my mother, sister and her family (especially my nephew and niece who I adore), and touch base with the family again."

Being music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic (in New York State) and the Virginia Symphony is enough for anyone, yet Ms Falletta finds time to do an extraordinary amount of other things. In great demand as a guest conductor, she has been invited to conduct many of the world's great symphony orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, the National Symphony, the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

"Travel is stressful, but once I get to the place I soon feel better. I may be very tired, but from the moment I'm in the hall doing the rehearsal I feel completely re-energised. The chance to be in a different city for a week and learn about another orchestra is very exciting for me. When I travel to Europe I try to arrive early to recuperate, but--for example--I have to travel overnight to Frankfurt soon and arrive there at 6.30 am to make a 9.30 am rehearsal in Dortmund. That's a drawback. But the music always wakes me up and re-energises me."

Outside music, Joann Falletta likes biking, reading, and snorkelling. She snorkels wherever she can. She admits she has little time for sports, but claims that "conducting is so good for the heart in every sense." As music director for two organisations, she finds little time indeed to do anything else, for she necessarily gets involved with time-consuming policy, education, and funding issues. And then there are all those new scores she has to prepare. Falletta is a strong advocate of American works and works by women composers and has brought a great deal of the music before the public. For her efforts in the former regard, she was awarded the Columbia University Ditson Award, having presented nearly three hundred works by American composers, including over sixty world premières.

And now, on Naxos American Classics, JoAnn Falletta and her Buffalo Philharmonic are introducing audiences all over the world to a long-forgotten but immensely rewarding US composer, Frederick Shepherd Converse (1871-1940). Falletta relished the experience.

"John Newton and Blanton Alspaugh, the production team, were totally professional and a delight to work with. Luckily we'd performed the works before and the audience loved them. It's lush music, beautifully written, very satisfying to play, and the Philharmonic played it with great gusto. I chose the music because I had heard it on an old recording with the Louisville Orchestra and was immediately intrigued by it. I made it one of my research projects to look into the rest of the music. I found that it is music which is a great link between Europe and the beginnings of music in the United States, music which we tend to have forgotten about. We like to think of our music as having begun with Aaron Copland or Charles Ives, but there was a very important generation before them of people who were very closely linked to European experiences but were living in America or had been born in America.

"Converse, for example, is closely linked with Rheinberger, and that European tradition was very important for a nation embarking on its own musical life. It was important for me to discover these links in both Converse and Griffes (our forthcoming disc). Converse is an individual voice of real depth.

"The great challenge was that no one knew the music at all, the style or anything about it. It was only available in manuscript; it wasn't music which had been played and corrected and gone over a hundred times, so we had to take care of mistakes in parts here and there. Sometimes it was just difficult seeing what exactly there was on the page. Balances were challenging since there was absolutely no performance tradition to rely on. It was like a flower opening up. The more we played it, the more we realised how extraordinary the music was, how well the parts fit together."

Joann Falletta came to music through an active decision of her own. Her family is first generation Italian American--her father worked in the garment industry and her mother was an accountant--and are music lovers, not musicians. She was not pushed into music lessons but insisted on them. At one time, the family was dismayed at what pretty little JoAnn was thinking of doing with her life. Even at the age of seven she was thinking about music as a career.

"We went to operas, concerts. Music was a part of our life at home, and only later did I realise that many of my friends did not have the great access to music that I had. My first instrument was the classical guitar. My father chose that for me, and I fell in love with it. We lived in a tiny apartment in Queens and there was simply no room for a piano. I went on to study cello and piano as a teenager--but the classical guitar has always been special to me.

"I was determined to be a conductor around about the age of eleven. There was something so compelling about the orchestra itself, the intensity of the experience, the idea of so many people getting together to create something. The tremendous collection of energies on stage was what I was drawn to. I went to an ordinary academic school and studied music privately until I graduated from high school. Then I went to a conservatory and to Juilliard for my master's and my doctorate in conducting.

"Of course, at that point the big influence for everyone was Leonard Bernstein. He was an idol for us, and I got to study with him in master classes. He was a tremendously warm and giving teacher, a truly great conducting teacher. He never concentrated on technique but on the meaning and emotion behind the music."

How does the maestra set about learning a score--especially a new score, so common in her case as a person who introduces so much new music to audiences?

"If it's a score that's brand new to me, I allow time to start studying the work well in advance--that can also be the case even with well-known scores like Mahler's Seventh. I listen to recordings only after I've studied the work, as it's a basic rule not to be swayed by pre-conceptions."

Overcoming pre-conceptions, concentrating on the score, bringing an orchestra to a level of spontaneous and all-out vigour in performance: never easy to achieve for man or woman.

"The most challenging thing for me was conducting the Mannheim Orchestra, which had never been conducted by a woman. The atmosphere was definitely frosty. After the first rehearsal, something changed, and they seemed not to be aware of it any more. That happened naturally by me having good expectations of them and treating them with respect. I've been back several times and it's been a wonderful relationship."

So what is the recipe for success?

"You have to convince the musicians that you have the highest expectations of them. They take on that responsibility and feel they want to do better. When you express disappointment to them, it carries more weight than screaming at them. Perhaps also displays of anger don't work well for women. I have never felt it necessary. But the expectation of excellence is absolutely necessary."

An expectation so clearly fulfilled.

Check out JoAnn Falletta's most recent release of works by Frederick Converse (8.559116), including Endymion's Narrative, The Mystic Trumpter, and Flivver Ten Million.

Here's what the maestra had to say about the works on her latest release:

"Both Endymion's Narrative and The Mystic Trumpeter are inspired by poetry, which was the trend at that time. Musicians and composers were very much influenced by the literary figures of their era, and Converse was a proponent of the tone poem, in common with Strauss and Liszt. He was a very literary man.

"In Endymion's Narrative . . . the audience is listening to it not exactly knowing what happens in the literary work, yet the exquisite poem [by John Keats] was obviously important to the composer. The idea of "What does life mean?" is in the music and is essentially important to Converse. Struggle, reconciliation and resolution are what I find to be the key points to discover in the music and the most rewarding things about it for me. It's profound and very moving.

"The Mystic Trumpeter is another essentially existential piece and proposes that our lives are informed by an inner music, and this music calls to us and seizes hold of our lives. We walk to its rhythm and cadence. It's about the peaks and valleys of our lives, and Converse takes us through all those important events--love, struggle, deceit, and joy at the end. Again, it has to do with the meaning of life and how that translates into music. It's a programme piece but one which, like Endymion's Narrative, you can enjoy for the sheer beauty of it without knowing the literary allusions. I certainly enjoy it.

"Flivver Ten Million is a bit different in that it's more programmatic, and one needs to know what's going on to understand what it is all about. It's more American in a way. It's truly unique, being about--of all things--an automobile. It's almost the first piece about a machine apart from Honegger's Pacific 231. It's all not something to be taken so seriously, yet the composer creates this lovely scenario to accompany it all, dawn in Detroit, birth of the car, and so on, with such skill and humour. It's enormously fun to play and I enjoyed it immensely."

Interview written by Dr. George Adams. The article is the property of and may not be republished without permission.


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