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August 1999

JoAnn Falletta:
Brings New Perspective to the Philharmonic

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 world’s 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 Orchestra’s 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 Falletta’s 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!

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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.

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JoAnn in 1st grade at Immaculate
Conception Elementary School in Queens.

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 Falletta’s 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, Beethoven’s 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.

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Sister LuAnn at age 2 and JoAnn at age 4.

In fact JoAnn’s 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 Debussy’s 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.

Falletta’s 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.

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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 Falletta’s 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 Robert’s 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 Waterbury Symphony.

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JoAnn and her husband Robert Alemany on
their wedding day, August 24, 1986.

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 Women’s 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 Falletta’s 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.

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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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