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Kathryn Cresla needed no prodding Saturday night when asked why she had traveled thousands of miles to be at the opening gala of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

JoAnn Falletta.

Falletta is the orchestra's first female music director and has made the Philharmonic arguably the most important American orchestra to choose a woman as its leader.

"This a wonderful day," said Ms. Cresla, who came from Florida. "She's a woman who also is a wonderful conductor. We're starting the new millennium with a great new opportunity."

There was an air of celebration in Kleinhans Music Hall, joy over the debut of a new, exciting leader and relief that, once again, the orchestra had survived another tumultuous roller-coaster ride of events.

Just four days before, the orchestra was on the verge of canceling opening night because of a contract dispute between the Philharmonic and its musicians.

A marathon bargaining session produced a last-minute settlement Wednesday, an issue Falletta made no attempts at avoiding when she spoke to Saturday's crowd.

"We have some wonderful news to celebrate -- the presence of our wonderful Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra musicians," she said, prompting the crowd to erupt into applause.

As they arrived, dressed in tuxes and evening gowns, people spoke honestly of their fears that, this time, the Philharmonic might not make it.

"I was afraid of the future," said Marie Krellner of the Town of Tonawanda. "It would have been a disaster to lose the Philharmonic. Maybe it's prestige. It gives Buffalo some class."

Words like "gem" and "jewel" are dropped when people try to explain the Philharmonic's irreplaceable role in Buffalo's rich cultural heritage.

Musically, it is a treasure that can't be found anywhere else, an important balance to the Bills and Sabres.

"It's culture, it's class and it's important to children," said James Ieda, one of the younger faces in an audience that tends to be a bit gray.

"I'm an elementary school music teacher, and I bring my kids here. This is a treasure of Buffalo. How can you be exposed to culture by watching MTV? We're a beer-drinking town with a football problem. I'm a Bills fan, but I also love coming here."

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