A legend in motion: Maestro JoAnn Falletta is coming to Tanglewood

  • Maestro JoAnn Falletta with composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Louis Brunelli

  • Maestro JoAnn Falletta, recently named one of the 50 great conductors, will make her Tanglewood debut this summer with three distinct performances. David Adam Beloff

  • Maestro JoAnn Falletta says playing the guitar helped her develop because it is a harmonic instrument. Eliese Theuer

For the Gazette
Published: 6/30/2022 6:45:48 PM
Modified: 6/30/2022 6:43:14 PM

Maestro JoAnn Falletta knew she wanted to be an orchestra conductor at age 11. She grew up in Queens, and her parents took her to free concerts at Carnegie Hall. When she saw Leopold Stokowski conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, it was a transcendent moment. Her dad was sitting next to her, and she informed him she was going to be a conductor. She knew nothing about the particulars but she knew Stokowshi was helping to make it all happen.

It was 1966, and it did not occur to Falletta that a girl could not conduct. She was right.

Falletta was recently named one of the 50 great conductors — alive and deceased. She has won multiple Grammy awards, she has introduced 600 works by American composers, and she has led 150 world premieres. She was named Classical Woman of the Year in 2019.

The maestro earned her bachelor’s from the Mannes College of Music, a master’s in orchestral conducting at Queens College, and master and doctoral orchestral conducting degrees from Julliard. She has achieved many “firsts” throughout her career.

This summer, Falletta will make her Tanglewood debut — with three distinct performances (https://www.bso.org/seasons/tanglewood-2022-season-programs). Her concert on Aug. 6 will feature the violinist Joshua Bell, and Falletta says she “loves his intensity as he always plays a piece as though it is his first time.” Typical of the maestro, her program will include the classical repertoire along with a piece by an esteemed contemporary composer, Puerto Rican Roberto Sierra.

Thirty years ago, I volunteered in a variety of capacities at The Women’s Philharmonic and I met Falletta. She was the music director there from 1986 to 1996. Talking with her recently felt like a full-circle encounter. Below are excerpts.

JM: I interviewed composer Libby Larsen as you premiered “The Atmosphere as a Fluid System” that featured flutist Eugenia Zukerman for the 1992-93 season. I was thrilled to learn that you recently premiered Larsen’s “The Supreme Four” commemorating the first four female members of the Supreme Court. You have known Larsen for many years. Please explain the importance of promoting contemporary American composers.

JF: It’s a joy to promote contemporary music — not merely an obligation. Orchestras are not a museum. An orchestra is a living entity in today’s world. Classical repertoires are important, of course, but today’s music has value. When I studied at Julliard, everything was about the classical repertoire. The Women’s Philharmonic was eye-opening; it was thrilling to discover new music. When we premiered a contemporary woman composer’s work and I would invite her to the stage to take a bow, tears might flow because she had never been so well received. Those 10 years were the most pivotal in my career. It was hugely influential in my future choices.

JM: In a 1992 interview, you described your philosophy of conducting by saying “This is my sort of ideal of what the conducting experience should be: At the end of a concert, every musician leaves the hall feeling that they played just as if there was no conductor. The musicians should feel liberated — that they were able to be personally complete and freely expressive. And yet everything occurred within the constraints of what the conductor did.” Does that philosophy hold up for you 30 years later or do you view things differently now?

JF: I feel that way more than ever now. Conductors frame and guide musicians, and we create a landscape where they can thrive. Now I am obsessed with this notion. I want the piece to belong to each musician, and I let them inform the piece while not abandoning them as their conductor. It’s almost unattainable for each musician to feel that, but I strive to make that happen. Sometimes it may seem risky and wild, and I say, let’s go for it.

JM: You have been the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic for many years, and your tenure with other notable orchestras were long-term. You have also guest conducted all over the world. Can you describe what makes each type of conducting successful for you?

JF: The job of a music director requires intensity and devotion every day. I get to know musicians both professionally and personally over time. As a guest conductor, I am not worried about the bottom line and other such details. A guest conductor experience is like meeting a new wonderful person for the first time. In the five or six days we spend together, we develop a close musical relationship.

When I asked Falletta if any one accolade stands out for her — and they are numerous — she redirected the conversation back to the musicians and communities she serves.

JF: The relationships are what I value most. One of the greatest compliments I received from a Buffalo audience member was the presumption that I was a Buffalo native. I am seen as “one of them” because I live here. We are organizing a memorial outdoor concert for the East Side neighborhood near where the tragic mass shooting took place (May 14). Community members are working with us to choose the pieces, and in that will be a tribute to African American composers. It will be on July 24. Buffalo is a small city. We have all been touched by this. An uncle of an employee here was killed in that shooting. Listening to live music together after a tragedy is important. When we performed “Beethoven’s Ninth” after 9/11, it was unique and will never be played in the same way. In San Francisco after the 1989 earthquake, The Women’s Philharmonic still held our concert because we thought people needed a place to be together. We did not know if the church was structurally sound, and we looked up at the ceiling more than once wondering about that, but still we played!

JM: Most conductors are pianists or violinists foundationally. You are a guitarist. Does it matter what instruments a conductor herself plays? I love that you perform as well. Does it help you to stay connected to musicians you conduct?

JF: I play a lot of chamber music, and being in touch with the physicality of it makes me sensitive to how musicians feel when I conduct. The guitar helped me to develop because it is a harmonic instrument. A guitarist brings the phrasing forward almost as a sleight of hand with the illusion of sustaining a note.

JM: Do you have words of wisdom for young women who feel the call to conduct orchestras?

JF: There is no reason to feel you can’t become a conductor because you are a woman. Go into it for the right reasons. It’s all about the musicians and not about you in a glamorous role. You must have the desire to spend every day of your life with a score that you bury yourself in. Younger women call or write to me asking for advice.

JM: What are you most looking forward to this summer at Tanglewood?

JF: I look forward to working with young people at the top of their skills, and I will essentially live there for 10 days, so I will get to see other conductors and musicians at work.

As we wrapped up our talk, Falletta told me she was thrilled that a group of supporters from Buffalo are joining her at Tanglewood. I imagine they will point to her proclaim to nearby audience members, “She is ours.” With a discography of 120 titles (www.joannfalletta.com), Maestro Falletta also belongs to the world at large and to the musical history she continues to make. Brava!

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