An interview with JoAnn Falletta: the explorer

I guess the fear for me is that there’ll be some great composers who I will never have found!

Hailed as a “leading force for the music of our time”, for her work as a conductor, communicator, recording artist, audience builder, champion of American composers and distinguished musical citizen, JoAnn Falletta serves as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony and Principal Guest Conductor of the Brevard Music Center. A leading recording artist for Naxos, her discs have won two Grammy Awards and ten Grammy nominations. JoAnn speaks to primephonic about how recording turned her into a discoverer and what keeps her inspired.  

Congratulations on your newest recording with Naxos: Richard Strauss’ Ariadne!

Thank you. I was very happy because for us it was also a chance to record a new Strauss piece, a new version of the Suite of Ariadne auf Naxos. The music, and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme is so beautiful that we were honoured to do this project, it was like a dream project. It was an unusual Strauss. It was Strauss with a small ensemble because of how it was presented in Hoftheater Stuttgart. It really highlighted a small group of our musicians in a very dramatic way. Lots of solos and wonderful individual playings.  A kind of chamber orchestra on a very high level.

How did it start?

We had been challenged by Naxos to find a repertoire that is not too often recorded. It is a big challenge of course because everything is recorded. It forced us to look for things that other people don’t know, especially me because that is my job to find this repertoire.

It has given me the possibility to look in different places, find names people don’t know, look at the scores, listen to the music and make choices like Vítězslav Novák, Josef Suk, or Ernő Dohnányi.

Our audiences have loved it because they get to hear this great music that nobody else knows. Our musicians have loved it because they’re playing music they haven’t heard before and in some cases they are just astonished by how wonderful it is. And of course other people who buy these recordings can make this discovery as well.

And to work with Klaus (Heymann) has been a joy for me. We go back and forth with ideas almost constantly. Many of them we don’t do (chuckles). And when we find something we both like, it is very exciting.

Is there any difference for you between conducting in a recording and live audience?

It is very different. In the live audience we take chances, we don’t pay too much attention to things that could get a bit bumpy or not gathered, because we’re making music and live music in a way is very free.

In recordings, we are extremely conscious of perfection. And we make sure that we do everything in the most polished way possible. And we always record after concerts so that we have the freedom of living the music for a week, playing it two or three times in concerts. So by the time we recorded it we are already comfortable with it and we can take chances in the studio too because we’ve been working so hard with it.

Having recorded more than 100 albums, what has changed in you?  

It’s even more than 100 for me, from the time before I worked with Naxos. We also have our own private label where we record for our home audience. There we might do Tchaikovsky or Brahms symphonies and those are live concerts. With Naxos we’ve really learned so much as an orchestra and I as a conductor because I am conducting works which are scarcely played. I have to find an interpretation, pacing and architecture which are valid for these works and that has made me a better conductor.

Is there some kind of ritual before you get into the recording? How do you prepare?

I always come a couple of hours early. I like to be the first one there and to be with the engineers or producers as they’re setting up, usually with Tim Handley. He and I talk about what is important to me in the particular disc we’re working on, be it the tower of the ensemble, the sound quality or the interpretation. I’ve got a lot of notes with me of anything that needs to be worked on. If you see me before the session, I’ll be wandering around on the stage, talking to every musician about what went fantastically well in the concert or something that we need to be careful of, something to be careful not to rush here and there. It is a very close relationship. And I love it that Tim always plays what we’ve been recording during the breaks. So the musicians go into his room and listen to themselves playing. It is a very collegial way of working together. Everybody feels free to talk about their solos, or which version they like the most. It’s their recording too and they live with it forever. They need to feel happy about it too. Tim is also very generous in that. These recordings are a sort of benchmark of our history, they serve as an aural history for the orchestra.

What I also find important is to be relaxed. When we are on stage we have a very limited time. When I’m relaxed, the musicians are relaxed. Of course we have to work fast, but we also try to be very focused in a calm way.

How do you conduct all these different orchestras, I mean, can you always introduce or squeeze in all of your ideas into each performance?

It depends on how flexible the orchestra is. For example this recent project I did of the works of Franz Schreker with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was wonderful. They didn’t know this music but it was in their binocular. I was able to bring about the nuance and shading which is personal to the orchestra. It’s not always the case, but we try as much as we can. It’s going to be a different performance with every orchestra. I have also worked in Spain with a different type of orchestra. Also wonderful, they have their own personality. It’s like meeting a new person, with a different point of view. It is very intriguing, and in the end very joyful.

What kind of conductor are you, according to your musicians?

I think they’ll say inclusive. Because I try very hard to be inclusive so that they can be as free as possible. I like to have an atmosphere – which  of course I’m shaping – where musicians can come through as individuals. I’m hoping that they’ll say I’m an open conductor because I’m open to the sound of the orchestra and to their way of playing.  I like them to have the possibility to be themselves.

How did your musical journey start?

Since I was young I have always been fascinated by music. Finally, my father bought me a guitar as a present for my 7th birthday and arranged a music lesson the next day. I have never thought of myself as anything other than a musician since that day. Everything about music fascinates me. I started as a little girl knowing that music is a very important thing in my life. I feel lucky that I found that. I was always sure and I’ve never questioned anything.

Does it bother you, occasionally being the first woman to conduct this orchestra or the first woman to do this or that in classical music world?

I don’t think about so much anymore, well maybe when I was young.  That has really passed now and it’s just making music with the orchestra. It is very comfortable even in foreign countries where they don’t have too many women conductors, they seem very open and relaxed about it.

I really would like to hear your opinion on this one: why are there very few women conductors of international renown especially somebody of your calibre?

I think, when most people think of a conductor, whether they are musicians or not, they think of someone as Herbert von Karajan, or Arturo Toscanini, who was a great tyrant in a way. They think that is what a conductor is. With that idea in mind people are less comfortable with female conductors. We hear a lot that women are not strong enough, they are easily distracted by families, or even that the orchestra will be distracted by a woman conductor, of what you wear. You know, all these silly things, but in the end, we still have an image of a conductor being an autocrat and it is not what a woman is thought of as.

Yes, of course the conductor still has the ultimate authority and has to make all the decisions, but I think the manner in which many conductors work is less aggressive, a bit more collegial and that opens the door to women conductors. People slowly change, you know classical music is very traditional. In the sixties there were very few women in the orchestra. We never played pieces by women. And the last to change is women conductors.

Do you make it a personal struggle for you somehow?

I try really not make it a big deal. Because if one is trying to prove something, it gets into the way of making music. Maybe there is always prejudice somehow somewhere in some level, but I find focusing on what is important and meaningful is really helpful.

You are a music director of two remarkable American orchestras and a frequent guest conductor, next to other engagements.  How do you keep yourself inspired and more importantly, not too exhausted?

I personally find the choosing of music itself endlessly fascinating. And always interpreting, always learning about it, never becomes dull. That to me is so refreshing. And working with musicians I find very energizing. They are coming to play with great talent and great skill, and you see when they play that they are very involved. So their passion, their personal commitment to me gives me energy. Travelling is the only part that is tiring for me. But the actual conducting itself and working with music and musicians is very energizing.

Do you miss spending more time with family?

I do. I sometimes feel very tired. But it’s interesting. Say I get off the plane in Europe and I have to go right to rehearsal, and at that moment I’m thinking, I can’t do this, I’m very tired from not sleeping in the plane. But within 20 minutes of conducting the orchestra I feel fantastic. And after the rehearsal, after the three hour of work I feel like a new person. There is just something about it that is giving me the strength and energy to do it. It’s from doing what you love.

But I still find what you do and how you do it extraordinary.

I feel very lucky. To work with an  orchestra is amazing. These are people who are fantastic players, with a lot of experience, great background of music, and a great love of music. What can be a better team than that?

You started with guitar. If you had to choose, which one would it be? Conducting, going back to guitar or mandolin, teaching or even something else?

I think it would be conducting. The fascination for me with conducting since I was ten was the vast repertoires. The idea that you have the brilliance and perfection of a Mozart symphony and then the extraordinary music of Strauss and on the other end of romantic music. I can never not live in the world of this great treasure. This to me is one of the great heritages of western music. Sometimes I play chamber music for my own pleasure, but mostly I conduct.

What would it take for you to stop conducting?

Let’s say I was too ill to conduct, I’d say to myself I’ve had a fantastic life in music I have done so many thousands of pieces of music with so many different orchestras so I’m grateful for that, but I hope that I don’t have to stop soon (chuckles).

Is there any project you haven’t attempted yet and would still like to do?

There are some works that I’d like to explore in more detaile, more of Bruckner symphonies. I haven’t done all of them. More Shostakovich symphonies and of course some new music. Olivier Messiaen is a composer I’m very interested in and have done very little of his work of, so I hope to be able to incorporate those. Of course there’s always more music and world premieres too. This week I’m doing a US premiere of a Chinese piece. I never know, I’m always very open to new interesting projects. Like this Schreker project with Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, it came out of the blue, I was so glad I could do it. Not something I’d thought about but it was a perfect project.

What kind of challenges does JoAnn Falletta face?

I think the challenges are more from being a music director. You’re also responsible for the financial health of the orchestra, next to marketing, promotions, raising money. It’s a lovely thing but can be overwhelming as well.

What are some of your most meaningful achievements?

The Naxos discs have always been very meaningful for me. The concerts at Carnegie Hall, bringing both orchestras there and had concerts there have always been very meaningful to me. Guest conducting for the first time in many places like in Berlin, have always been meaningful. Doing all the Mahler symphonies. Each one was like a mountain in my life, never to be forgotten. There are so many wonderful things happening from working with the orchestras.

The excitement hasn’t changed in all these years?

Yeah, I feel like the next week is a great adventure. Next week I’m working with young people in Michigan. They are discovering Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade for the first time. I’ve done it many many times. The idea of have helping people of 16-17 years old play it for the first time is so inspiring. Every week to me is a great adventure as long as it’s music.

Ever thought of crossing to other genres?

No, not really, because to me there’s still so much to discover in classical music. That’s partly thanks to Nazos because of their encouragement to look below the surface, look for things people still don’t know. That turned me into some kind of a discoverer. I guess the fear for me is that there’ll be some great composers who I will never have found! That will be sad because the ones that we have found have been so special.

Any last words for the readers?

I’d like to emphasize how much Naxos have done for me personally. They have opened the window to new music and they’ve gotten the voice of Buffalo Philharmonic all over the world. The orchestra would not really have the presence they have without Naxos. Many people don’t come to Buffalo but they’ve heard our sound. I’m very grateful for them.

JoAnn Falletta in conversation with primephonic’s Rina Sitorus

Image credit: Mark Dellas

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