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Promptly at 9:00 a.m. I entered Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College and was greeted with a wash of colorful music from the Suite from Richard Strauss’s masterpiece, Rosenkavalier. The diminutive Maestra wastes no time! And the well-trained orchestra of adolescents and young adults respond with intensity.
Dressed in a pair of white capris, an untucked pale lilac shirt, sleeved folded to the elbow, and comfortable shoes, she unleashes controlled waves of sound, not stopping for at least ten minutes while the musicians gain confidence and relax into her tempos and style. “She doesn’t throw like a girl,” was the thought that crossed my mind as I watched her powerful attacks – yet occasionally she would relax into a sway, moving her weight from one leg to the other – the “Falletta Dance” – then rising up on her toes as she elongates a beat expressively. Her chin length hair is kept out of her eyes with a headband of sorts, but otherwise this attractive woman is all about the music, gender-indifferent!
Clearly she has impressed the music world – JoAnn Falletta has been the Music Director of the Virginia Symphony for 20 years, the Buffalo Philharmonic for 12 and has just finished her first season with the Ulster Orchestra (Northern Ireland). She has made dozens of recordings and travels from festival to festival all summer long. I interviewed her in the cavernous Moon Room under Dana Auditorium after her first rehearsal, interrupted by a landing plane and two monstrous thudding doors.
CVNC: JoAnn Falletta, welcome back to the Eastern Music Festival and to CVNC, Classical Voice of North Carolina… How do I address you? Are you Maestra?
JF: You know, this remains a question that I have not solved and it doesn’t seem to matter, since most people call me Joann. The maestro/maestra issue comes up very often, and no one is quite sure because I think the Italians never imagined a woman conducting at the time.
CVNC: But what would a school teacher be?
JF: A Maestra.
CVNC: So it exists.
JF: Yes, the word exists… [Chit-chat in Italian and discussion of late Rumanian conductor, Sergiù Celibidache.]
CVNC: You are a “no nonsense” conductor. You are straightforward… just music…
JF: That’s to me what it’s about. It’s about the music. And it’s about creating a situation where the players understand what you want and they can then do it. Sometimes I think that extraneous motion and an element of theatre actually diminishes the returns you get from musicians, because for me you lay the groundwork for them to open up; you give them the chance to blossom, you give them the chance to take risks. And if they don’t feel completely comfortable with that landscape you create for them, they tend to pull back a little bit. And for me it’s all about getting the orchestra to open up, and be individually excellent and to take some chances with the music.
CVNC: How much does a conductor really influence what the audience hears?
JF: Oh I think a great deal. That’s a question I’m often asked. Are the musicians really watching you? Is the conductor really necessary? What does the conductor actually do? I can’t say that I’m aware of it most of the time but I do know when I make a misstep or when I forget I had planned to take a retard, things don’t go well. So obviously there is a kind of communication that’s very strong between the conductor and the players. And the conductor really is responsible for the way the players think about the music and the way they play the music. They are the ones making the sound, but you have to create the situation in which they can make that sound. And a lot of times you can’t really talk about that. I mean saying to an orchestra ‘play with a beautiful sound’ accomplishes nothing; but creating a way in which they can read your gestures and play with warmth and ease and openness, that changes a sound.
CVNC: Your instruments were guitar, cello at one time, —
JF: And piano, of course -- Yes, the instrument I started with was classical guitar. It’s an instrument that’s remained very special to me, because for me it was the way I entered this world. I mean the way I entered the musical world, the first beginnings of falling in love with music.
PP: But it’s so un-symphonic.
JF: It is in a way, it’s a very unusual background, but the idea that it is a harmonic instrument, that it’s an instrument that accompanies a great deal, I think that has helped me. I spent much of my life in high school and college accompanying violinists and singers and flutists and the idea of a guitar harmonically accompanying, I think, taught me a lot about concerto - not only concerto playing but accompanying people in the orchestra. The other wonderful thing I think about the guitar is you know that a guitar can’t really sustain a sound; it’s like a harpsichord in that way. So we were always as guitarists - we were always creating the illusion of a line or creating the idea that music has to go somewhere, that it has to create forward momentum, and it was a little bit like smoke and mirrors with guitar because you had to play in such a way that people could hear a line that wasn’t actually there. I think that made me always think about architecture; where was I going, what did I have to do to get there. And in a sense, to me, that kind of architecture of music is a very large part of the conductor's job is how do you get people to understand how the piece unfolds.
CVNC: So if for you the architecture is most important; it always seems to me the orchestra musician wants to know how to do something. I guess you want to know why to do something.
JF: That’s a wonderful way of putting it. Why, why to move here, why to pull back here, why is that chord needing weight at that point; because you’re thinking of the overall structure and those landmarks in it, and also the propulsion to get from A to B to C. That’s critical, and when you do large scale pieces it becomes a gigantic task to somehow make a Bruckner symphony make sense, or a Mahler symphony make sense, because it’s so long from the beginning to the end, but that’s one of the fundamentals of art, I mean even a writer writing a novel knows very well that that book has to unfold in a certain way, and come down in a certain way, and end in a certain way, same thing with music. In much more ethereal way really because we can’t go back and play it for the audience again, they have to follow us all the way.
CVNC: [Airplane overhead] I was struck this morning in the rehearsal, you used very few words, only what’s necessary; basically to tell people where to start again and why you stopped. How was it different working with students compared to professional musicians?
JF: You know, it’s not that different. I think I have to be a little bit more careful because sometimes professionals who play the piece will continue on and know what you want, even if you’re not as clear. Sometimes I try to be a little bit clearer at the beginning for the students; when I’m about to slow down, when we’re going to be moving a phrase, so they can all see it together. But generally I ask them for the same things, and I think that they understand it! I mean these are talented young musicians who may not have played the piece but have a lot of music in their background, they have a lot of music they’ve done, and they want to rise to this challenge. So for me to talk about things like color or pacing with them I think makes sense to them, they understand it. On some intrinsic level it helps them grow and think about music in a different way.
Editor's Note: For much more, listen to the interview with the Maestra responding to questions from our Maestro.
And for still more from the conductor, whose arts advocacy is as exemplary as her orchestral leadership, see http://www.joannfalletta.com/writing.html#thecase.