JoAnn Falletta

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JoAnn Falletta

The American conductor JoAnn Falletta (born 1954) served as music director of three orchestras simultaneously while still a young woman. She chose to perform pieces from the non-standard repertoire, trying to select pieces suited to the particular audience.

JoAnn Falletta was an American conductor whose perseverance and talent helped to place her simultaneously at the helm of three orchestras at a young age. Her success was due to the fresh and electric performances she conducted. This freshness and excitement came from performing pieces that were not in the standard repertoire, but were rather either little-known works by well-known composers or works by unfamiliar composers of the past and present. Falletta aimed to introduce these composers to the regular audiences for classical music and to young listeners who were looking for "something that will put them more in touch with themselves" and who can listen with an open ear and mind to music that is energetic and crisply presented.

The ability to communicate her ideas about particular pieces to orchestra members and to convince and enable them to carry out her conceptions did not come easily or quickly to Falletta, but the desire to do so developed in her as a child. She was born in New York City on February 27, 1954. Raised in the borough of Queens in an Italian-American household, her home was filled with music. As there was no room in the apartment for a piano, JoAnn's father bought her a guitar, which she loved as "it was the perfect instrument, quiet and personal, because I was painfully shy as a child." Her ability to play the guitar earned her entry into the guitar department at Mannes College of Music, and later she was called by the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic whenever music for guitar, mandolin, or lute was required.

Uncertainty About a Woman Conductor

Her love of the guitar did not diminish her love of conducting. She led the student orchestra at Mannes when she was 18 and requested that she be accepted into the conducting studies program at the college. At first the administration was resistant because of the long period of study necessary combined with the unlikely prospect that a woman would be chosen as musical director of an orchestra. Mannes permitted her transfer, however, and she went on for further study to Queens College (M.A. in orchestral conducting) and the Juilliard School of Music (M.M., D.M.A. in orchestral conducting). Juilliard was no more encouraging to Falletta than Mannes had been, but she persisted and her obvious technical abilities overcame the school's uncertainty about her viability as a conductor.

None of the discouragements she received showed in her attitude toward her training, perhaps because the climate had changed in the years she was studying and, though she was still breaking ground, the concept of a female conductor was no longer considered unthinkable. Jorge Mester helped her to establish a more assertive manner on the podium while still remaining true to her own personality. This meant that she had to discard some of her self-effacing ways of dealing with orchestra players and resulted in a quiet control based on her extraordinary command of the literature. Her talent for communicating a single vision of a work through her baton technique and her explanations of musical phrasing to the players produced exciting concerts from coast to coast.

Her career began with the Jamaica (New York) Symphony, which she founded in 1978. It was, in her own words, "absolutely horrible, terrible and an embarrassment to think of now." It consisted of 15 players who rehearsed Monday nights. Gradually the original members were replaced by friends from Juilliard who wanted more orchestral experience and the number of players rose to 80. The name of the orchestra was changed to Queens Symphony and Falletta had her first taste of success in building up an orchestra. At the time she was founding the Queens Symphony, she was also studying at Juilliard and beginning to receive conducting fellowships. She won the Leopold Stokowski Conducting Competition in 1985, the same year she was appointed associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra where she worked from 1985 to 1988.

Earlier, in 1983, the Denver Chamber Orchestra had appointed her as music director and the growth of that orchestra in popularity and quality matched the transformation of the Queens Symphony. It was just this talent of Falletta's to tap the interest of the community that caused the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic in 1986 and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra in 1989 to appoint her to be their musical director, bringing the total of orchestras of which she was musical director to three. Each group required a different repertoire, which provided a challenge to JoAnn Falletta. As she admitted, before she accepted the position with the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic, "I didn't know who (the composers) Amy Beach or Louise Farrenc were. It was a whole new world for me." No novice to creative programming, she presented in the spring of 1988 works by Marianne Martines, a student of Haydn's, and a work by Germaine Tailleferre, a 20th-century French composer. In addition, works by Pulitzer prize winner Ellen Taafe Zwilich and Joan Tower expanded her repertoire to include prominent living women composers. She left the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic after 10 years, but remained its artistic director.

Her approach to her audiences was to educate them about and interest them in what was being performed. Frequently she gave talks before performances about the music to be performed. She also presented youth concerts, hoping to create an appreciative audience for classical music in the future, and sought out pieces that reflected the ethnic mix of her constituency. In the case of the Long Beach Symphony, she sought contemporary Asian works to reflect the large Asian population in the area. In 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1989 ASCAP awarded Falletta first and third prizes for creative programming. It was a fitting public recognition of her efforts not to recreate the standard repertoire. To offer this unusual mix of pieces she had learned an extraodinary number of pieces.

Critical Kudos

Critical acclaim was extremely favorable. Newsday referred to her as "one of the finest conductors of her generation. Her baton technique is so utterly communicative that one might as well plug one's ears and simply watch the music take shape through her sensitive, graceful gestures." The Los Angeles Times wrote of a performance of Prokofiev's "Symphony No. 5" by the Long Beach Symphony, "Her deliberate tempo in the first movement gave the music an extra-weighty flow, culminating spectacularly in a broad, muscular and percussive climax. This overall measured pace was ever-flexible on a local level, however, pointing up details in the massive architectural design." It was her total command of her score and the clarity of her own conception of it that was transmitted by her baton to the members of the orchestra. The communication from conductor to players to audience depends on strong, forceful leadership, which Falletta was able to provide. USA Today wrote: "A cool, precise presence, Falletta is the master of eventful legato. When many conductors try to establish rounded, smooth phrasing, the results are often bland, but Falletta can be suave while maintaining a rich sense of incident. As shown by the famous Nimrod variation, as well as the more introspective moments of Barber's Symphony No. 1, she was best when precipitating an ecstatic moment, inspiring an emotional candidness from the players but never slipping into the sort of self-indulgence that would tax the piece's overall architecture. Her performance of the Barber symphony had a Mahlerian grandeur." The Denver Rocky Mountain News wrote that "Falletta is surely destined for classical music stardom."

Stardom in the form of an appointment to a major national orchestra may not come for a time to Falletta, however, although she retained her place with the Long Beach Symphony and had also joined the Virginia Beach Symphony by 1997. Since she maintained a busy schedule of guest conducting around the country and abroad beginning in 1982, she may find herself sought by a major orchestra rather sooner than that. Even while waiting for greater exposure nationally, her ideas about the presentation of music to new audiences will provide guidelines for the future of classical music performance in this country. Falletta favored small, intimate spaces for listening to music, avoiding large, impersonal concert halls. In addition, an exciting repertoire related to the audience's background plus an effort to educate them about music was the formula for her continued success as an orchestral conductor. At the heart of her achievements, however, was the stunning control, the expertise, and the well-thought-out conceptions of the music she conducted.

Further Reading

Articles about JoAnn Falletta have appeared in newspapers and magazines on both coasts as well as in national magazines. An extensive article appeared in the San Francisco Magazine (November 1987) in which her early training and subsequent success are described. On September 9, 1990, the Los Angeles Times Calendar published an article by Greta Beigel on Falletta which went into some detail about her development as a conductor. Musical Americaran a cover story about her (September 1990) and reviewed a concert by the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic (November 1989). The Los Angeles Times (September 30, 1990) wrote an article that discussed her musical directorship of the Long Beach Symphony which contained comments by those whom she conducted about her style of leadership. □

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JoAnn Falletta

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