Feature Stories

Roll Over Beethoven-It’s JoAnn Falletta Day in Buffalo

  Today is *Officially* JoAnn Falletta Day in Buffalo!

JoAnn Falletta is our Maestro and music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Maestro Falletta is celebrating her 20 year anniversary with the Philharmonic this year, and I was lucky enough to get to chat her up this week!

First though, picture beautiful classical harp in the background as someone was practicing across the hall the whole time we chatted.

The first question I had was: How did it all start?  When did you know you wanted to be a Conductor and not a musician?

It all stared with JoAnn when her Dad gave her his favorite instrument, a little classical guitar with nylon strings on her 7th birthday and he arranged for classical guitar lessons the next day.  The guitar led to other things like wanting to hear concerts, buy records and hear other people play.

“I guess I was a classical musician before I even knew what classical music was”

“I was just knocked out by the orchestra”

“I never distinguished classical from popular music, it was just music”

“There was something about the conductor enabling these people to do something beautiful, getting them together, being a kind of catalyst that must have appealed to me”

When she was 11 it was Leopold Stokowski conducting Beethoven’s 6th Symphony at Carnegie Hall that really got her attention.

“I was just knocked out by the orchestra”

At the end of the concert  Stokowski turned to the audience and said something like “Since you enjoyed it so much, we are going to repeat the last movement”.

Two things here: 1. At that time no conductor ever talked to the audience and 2. They didn’t do encores.  That really struck a chord, and 11 year old JoAnn knew right then and there that she wanted to be a conductor.  This is when her parents got a little worried.  They loved that she loved music, but, her Dad wanted her to be a lawyer, and encouraged her to get educated to independent.  He came from a large Sicilian family.  After seeing his sisters getting married and end up unhappy. He wanted his girls to have a choice. Pretty progressive for a Sicilian man.

“You should be able to support yourself.  If you don’t want to marry, don’t want to have a family, you have to be able to live a good life”

Her Summer job was working at Standard and Poor’s compiling a book of important businessmen.

“It made me sure that I wanted to be a musician”

How hard was it to get up to conductor being a woman?

When she started at conservatory the folks there said that there weren’t female conductors.  They basically told her that they would hate to see her go through all these years of music school and feel like it was for nothing.  17 Year old JoAnn couldn’t be dissuaded though.  She was a classical guitar major at the time and the school gave her a chance to audit classes for a year.  After a year, the school decided they would allow her to have a double major.

“If I had started 10 years earlier, it never would have happened.”

 On Conducting an all female orchestra:

While working on her Doctorate at Julliard and also working as assistant conductor for the Milwaukee Symphony.  JoAnn got a call from San Francisco.  The Women’s Philharmonic, that played classical music written by women played by women.  At the time, even JoAnn didn’t know that there were classical pieces written by women.  In fact there are hundreds of classical pieces written by women.  Who knew?  She had always been taught about Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart etc.  Off she went to San Fran to meet up with these ladies and they already had a concert arraigned and ready to conduct.  It was a piece by American composer Amy Beach, who wrote a symphony in the 19th century.  She stayed there for 10 years between 1985 and 1995 conducting these women to packed houses, and getting write ups in the big newspapers.  They made recordings of living female classical composers and got the music out there.

“It got so well known then that men wanted to audition for it”

She told me of a composer called Felix Mendelssohn who had an equally talented sister called Fanny Mendelssohn.  Fanny composed at home as he did, but her music was only for home use.  They had wealthy parents, that had their own orchestra for the kids to play with.  Her brother went on to become this world famous composer and Fanny’s music was locked in the Berlin Music Library with the understanding that her music was not to be let out for public consumption because she was a woman.  Even her family supported this idea.  Fast forward 200 years, and The Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco led by Maestro Falletta world premiers her music.

“Music history wasn’t written by women, so most of them disappeared”

The difference between conducting women vs men:

First of all, the women were very supportive of each other. They were much more willing to read from old manuscripts that were handwritten (200 years ago) and not so clear.  Other orchestras would refuse the music because the manuscripts weren’t really clear and they didn’t want to take the time.  The women, on the other hand, would take the time to really read it, rewrite it and do what ever they could to make it happen.

“Whatever style the woman was presenting to them, it was a celebration.”

The Woman’s Philharmonic is no more.  Some could say now there is no need for a women’s orchestra because women can play with any orchestra now.  However, JoAnn points out that some orchestras around the world are still exclusively men.  As for female composers:

“Look at a symphony schedule and see how many pieces by a woman composer are on there. In general it’s zero”

It has gotten better.  More women are seen on the podium, women are composing, and playing brass instruments. Classical is very tradition bound, the music is from Mozart’s time.   Change comes slowly.

And that was just the first 15 minutes.  I learned more about classical music history in 30 minutes that I have learned in my whole life.  Part 2 coming up soon stay tuned as we celebrate JoAnn Falletta’s 20 Year Anniversary with the BPO   -JAP-


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