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Like anyone starting a new job in a new town, JoAnn Falletta hoped for a smooth landing. It was anything but.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's star-in-waiting bumped down hard this week to find management and musicians at loggerheads in negotiations over a new contract. The plug already had been pulled on the planned local telecast of Saturday night's opening concert, and now the stalemate threatened to completely scuttle her long-awaited coronation as music director.

"This situation was a first for me," a relieved Falletta remarked Thursday in Kleinhans Music Hall, as players gathered to rehearse just hours after a tentative settlement had been reached that would boost their base pay by about $10,000 over three years. They were expected to ratify the deal today friday at a meeting in Kleinhans.

"We're very hopeful that the contract will pass muster, because everybody wants to get on with making music and ushering in the JoAnn Falletta years with this orchestra," said Lawrence A. Ribits, BPO executive director.

Ribits said the settlement, details of which were withheld pending ratification, "would keep a strong orchestra in Western New York and improve the economic situation of the musicians -- who deserve it, given their sacrifices over the past few years."

"There are some substantial gains. I think this is a very good contract for the musicians, and I hope they agree," said Mark Jones, president of Buffalo Musicians Association Local 92, which represents the 72 BPO players.

Much hand-wringing went on in the hours before the last-minute deal was reached shortly after 1 a.m. in the Amherst office of federal mediator Kevin Powers, said Falletta, who kept in touch with both sides by telephone.

"Everyone was waiting. Anxious. Hoping," she said.

Once news of the tentative deal arrived, Falletta began focusing her bleary eyes on Saturday's Opening Night Grand Gala, which will showcase the orchestra's classical and pops virtuosity.

The curtain will rise on the Falletta Era with Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," followed by guest soloist Arturo Sandoval on trumpet. After intermission Falletta will conduct the orchestra, the Philharmonic Chorus and the Choristers of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

About 1,000 tickets remain. The shadow cast on the opening concert by the bargaining impasse and consequent strike threat slowed sales, "but we'll make up ground over the next couple of days," predicted Thomas Philion, BPO marketing director. A $100-a-plate dinner for 400 preceding the concert easily sold out.

The cancellation of Wednesday's rehearsal because of the negotiating logjam won't have an audible effect on Saturday, Falletta promised before running through the program with BPO musicians for the first time.

"We'll do just fine. We had scheduled an extra rehearsal anyway," she said.

While music directors must maintain a certain neutrality between the orchestra managers who pay them and the musicians who perform for them, Falletta deeply sympathizes with the Buffalo players, who are among the lowest-paid in the business.

Even a $10,000 increase in their base pay from $28,700 at present to $38,000, as outlined in the tentative contract, would leave them well below the $51,810 average base salary for American orchestras.

"They are extremely underpaid, given the talent level of this orchestra," Falletta said.

She plans to maintain a high profile in the community, and believes her work as a BPO goodwill ambassador will improve the organization's -- and the players' -- financial fortunes.

"I'm going to enjoy getting the word out as to what a great time this is to hear this orchestra. Hopefully the community will lend its support."

Falletta has purchased a waterfront home with her husband, Robert Alemany, who will commute to his job as a systems analyst in White Plains.

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