by Edward YADZINSKI
In the world of classical music few events generate as much excitement and general
interest as the appointment of a new music director to the podium of a major symphony
orchestra like the Buffalo Philharmonic. To the point, for well more than half a century
the BPO has had an international reputation as a sounding board for some of the
worlds most celebrated figures in serious music. Outstanding on the list are
conductors like Joseph Krips, Lukas Foss, Michael Tilson Thomas, Julius Rudel and Semyon
Bychkov, all of whom had brilliant tenures at the helm of the Philharmonic with regard to
community service, creative programming, recordings and major tours.
Thus, when JoAnn Falletta was selected from a highly competitive list of international
candidates for the top post at the BPO, the music world turned its discriminating ear once
again on Buffalo - carefully tuned-in to monitor the Orchestras segue into the 21st
century under the baton of a music director who just happens to be a woman. Oddly, here at
the threshold of a new millennium, one would think that by now the issue of gender should
have been long settled and closed. After all, women on the concert stage are today no less
likely than men to appear as featured soloists, whether the role is that of an
instrumental virtuoso or as a diva on the operatic stage. Likewise the ranks of major
symphony orchestras have long reflected an appropriate balance - on all instruments there
are as many women as men with tenured positions in various roles as principal or section
players. Even in the world of symphony orchestra management one finds a fair distribution
of executive responsibility among both men and women at all levels. It seems that only the
position of principal conductor has remained a domain apart - as if some mystic credo
forbids genuine access to women. The point is made doubly dramatic when we realize that
Fallettas appointment as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic reveals that, in
terms of the stature and artistic credentials of the BPO, she is the first female director
of a truly major symphony orchestra in the United States. Astonishing!
JoAnn at age 2 with her mother Mary.
So how did this happen - i.e. by what magic has JoAnn Falletta been able to emerge from
the traditional symphonic wilderness as a major voice in the musical universe? To
understand this we must go back to day one in her musical life.
Falletta is quick to credit the support and love she enjoyed very early on from her
family, where she and her sister LuAnn (now an engineer at Lucent Technologies) were
encouraged to pursue a variety of musical and intellectual interests. The family of four
resided in a very small apartment in Queens which JoAnn relates had barely enough space
for the new guitar she received at the age of seven from her parents. Given the motivating
tradition of her family, the otherwise acutely shy young girl took to the instrument
easily and very seriously right from the start.
JoAnn in 1st grade at Immaculate
With regard to family heritage both her father and mother were first generation
children of Italian immigrants. With pride Falletta relates how their lives unfolded in
the All-American model of hard work and perseverance: after graduating from high school
her father attended a trade institute and followed with a long career in the New York
garment industry; ever-determined, her mother entered college at the age of 49 and became
a professional accountant.
But where Fallettas voice turns most tender (with a blithe trace of New York in
her accent) is when she speaks of the many musical Sunday afternoons she spent as a young
child and later as a teenager with her parents and sister singing and playing all kinds of
lovable music, from family favorites to pop tunes to the melodies of The Waltz King,
Johann Strauss Jr. Then there was that moment of happy enlightenment when 12-year-old
JoAnn discovered the symphony orchestra at her first-ever concert at Carnegie Hall which
she attended with her parents. Featured on the program was one of the greatest works in
the symphonic repertoire, Beethovens Symphony No.6, the Pastoral. The
moment was such a joyful revelation that young JoAnn somehow knew she would someday become
part of that very music. And though she would soon begin cello lessons so that she could
actually perform in an orchestra, a secret Muse told her a different truth - that one day
she would be an orchestra conductor. In an idealistic sense the music of that moment was
so overwhelming that today Falletta (who by nature is a trove of musical detail) cannot
even recall who was conducting or which orchestra was performing. Beethoven would have
heartily enjoyed the compliment.
Sister LuAnn at age 2 and JoAnn at age 4.
In fact JoAnns first performing experience with an orchestra occurred in her
twenties when she became a member of the cello section of a Long Island symphony. But by
then she had studied a lot of the symphonic repertoire, and, as one would expect from an
idealistic budding conductor, she had her own preferences about tempos, phrasing, style,
etc. At the same time, true to her considerate and polite nature, the young cellist kept
her opinions in reserve. However the flint and spark of high performance standards were
already brewing and churning in her creative persona. So perhaps it was inevitable: during
a rehearsal one evening when a particularly boring conductor made a tedious mess out of
Debussys splendid Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by yelling out all the beats in
the entire piece, young JoAnn became so appalled she simply walked off stage, packed up
her cello and went home.
Fallettas conservatory study began at the Mannes College of Music in New York
which she initially entered as a classical guitar major. Adding a double major in
conducting during her sophomore year, she studied under Leonid Bolotin and Frederick Hand
and later as a Master of Arts candidate with Semyon Bychkov. At the time the curriculum
was integrated with study at Queens College where she became a conducting assistant. Her
post-graduate work concluded with a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Juilliard
School, during which interval she studied under Jorge Mester and privately with Sixten
Ehrling. From her Juilliard years Falletta also warmly recalls various master seminars
with Leonard Bernstein, whose creative energy and love of music remains an inspiration.
JoAnn at 17 and LuAnn at 15.
But as ever, Falletta was mad-cap busy along the way, assuming her first podium post as
conductor of the Jamaica Symphony, an ensemble comprising mostly of students and gifted
amateurs of all backgrounds and ages. With time the orchestra became the semi-professional
Queens Philharmonic, and for almost ten years JoAnn led the ensemble through a very broad
sampling of the vast symphonic repertoire, an experience she credits among the most
important of her formative training.
Now, with all this, readers should wonder how a beautiful and gifted young woman might
survive in the frenzied music milieu of the Big Apple - i.e. one replete with a lot of
talented, handsome and interested young men. We get the picture. But Cupid was
adroitly on-line when a fellow-student at Queens College, clarinetist Robert Alemany,
began to play in the school orchestra which at the time was rehearsing under
Fallettas baton. In admiration JoAnn fondly relates that Robert kept such an
extravagant schedule as a serious performer and double major in computer science that he
often slept through his alarm clock, sometimes missing rehearsals altogether. Her solution
was to ring his phone every rehearsal morning so as to ensure his timely arrival..! As
players are usually fired if they sleep through an alarm more than once, surely something
was up. After their marriage in New York in 1986 the couple discovered that Roberts
full-time responsibilities as a systems engineer for AT&T could often be handled
remotely, a fact which has allowed him to accompany JoAnn often on her decidedly
whirl-winded schedule - from coast to coast, continent to continent. For his own part
husband Robert never skipped a beat as a professional clarinetist, having appeared and
recorded as a soloist with JoAnn in a variety of venues, from Beijing to Prague to New
York. On top of all this he also manages to hold a position as bass clarinetist with the
JoAnn and her husband Robert Alemany on
Because the artistic credentials of JoAnn Falletta have been recently and widely
publicized here in Western New York, readers will forgive this snap-shot summary for
reference: prior to accepting her position as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic
Falletta concurrently held the same post with the Virginia Symphony in Norfolk and with
the Long Beach Symphony on the west coast. Her previous duties with the Bay Area
Womens Philharmonic, her championing efforts for new music and her related
discography have received abundant praise. No less significant are her recordings with the
London Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra and the New Zealand Symphony as
well as upcoming new releases with the Virginia and Long Beach Orchestras and the Czech
National Symphony. To all of this we must not overlook Fallettas gift for sharing
the creative source which lies behind every symphonic masterwork. She is widely applauded
both for her pre-concert talks with audiences and for the enlightened style of her writing
about music. In the magazine Classic CD, Falletta concludes her award-winning essay on
listening in characteristic manner:
As living, breathing men and women we possess everything we need to understand music
fully, to relish an experience that can be immensely ennobling and enriching.
LuAnn, Mary and JoAnn.
If we can open our ears and listen, we are the heirs to an art that can move us, can
touch us, can deepen our humanity as nothing in our lives can.
Edward Yadzinski, a long-time member of the BPO, is on the performance faculty at UB, a clarinetist/saxophonist and has been the Program Annotator of the Buffalo Philharmonic for the past ten seasons.
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