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Bringing music to the Western New York community

Since JoAnn Falletta's arrival as the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1999, it has prospered while other orchestras throughout the nation have gone into bankruptcy. Among other awards, Falletta has been inducted into the Western New York Women's Hall of Fame. NeXt recently talked with Falletta about her musical career.

>NeXt: You recently renewed your contract with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. What is it about the BPO and/or Buffalo that made you want to stay?

JoAnn Falletta: It is difficult for me to believe that I am actually in the middle of my 11th season as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic! It has certainly been an extraordinary 11 years for me with this incredible orchestra, and the time has been filled with many memorable moments. I inherited the stewardship of the Philharmonic from a long line of illustrious music directors, and the character of the orchestra itself was an intriguing blend of European warmth and American innovation.

The sophistication of our audience and the love the community has shown toward the Buffalo Philharmonic inspire me and the orchestra to continually strive for excellence and are at the heart of the pleasure it was for me to renew my contract with the BPO.

>NeXt: When did you realize that conducting was your passion?

JF: I was inspired to conduct by the many orchestra concerts I attended with my parents at Carnegie Hall.

>NeXt: Were you involved with music when you were in high school? If so, how?

JF: I knew as a young child that I wanted to be in the 'middle' of that beautiful experience of making music. I knew from an earlier age that I wished to conduct. I studied conducting and music theory as a teenager and played guitar. I never did have alternative plans -- I was always focused on my musical aspirations. It went to high school at St. Vincent Ferrer's in New York City. The music teacher helped and supported me there, but most of my studies all took place outside of school.

>NeXt: When you first came to Buffalo in 1999, did you immediately realize that this is where you wanted to work?

JF: Yes. The orchestra was excellent to begin with, but I felt a strong sense of purpose and opportunity to integrate the orchestra more fully into the community.

>NeXt: What is your favorite part of being a conductor?

JF: The best part is being in front of an incredible group of musicians conducting works that represent some of the finest achievements ever created.

>NeXt: What are some drawbacks to being a conductor?

JF: The difficult part of the job is the fundraising demands of sustaining a nonprofit organization in the United States.

>NeXt: Who are some of your favorite musicians and/or composers that you've worked with over the years?

JF: We have had so many extraordinary soloists come to work with the BPO. Just a few of those spectacular artists would include Renee Fleming, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Andre Watts and Yo-Yo Ma. The BPO has brought many contemporary composers to Western New York, including John Corigliano, Daron Hagen, Ellen Zwilich, Joan Tower, Behzad Ranjbaran, Paul Moravec, Chris Rogerson, Eric Ewazen, Persis Vehar, Lowell Leiberman, Robert Sirota, Chen Ye among others.

>NeXt: You currently conduct the BPO, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland. Is it difficult to prepare for all three orchestras simultaneously?

JF: It can be a challenge, but with some good advance planning it works pretty well.

>NeXt: You are the first American and the first female to direct the prestigious Ulster Orchestra. How do you feel about being such an ambassador of music overseas?

JF: It is an honor and an exciting opportunity to work with the Ulster Orchestra. I look forward to performing many works from the United States for the audiences of Northern Ireland and in turn to learn more of the wonderful and rich tradition of Irish and British composers. I am most excited about an upcoming recording project with the Ulster Orchestra on the Naxos label introducing premiere recordings of the works of Irish woman composer Ina Boyle.

I was very fortunate to start my professional conducting career at a time when gender issues were becoming increasingly less significant and noticeable. I have tremendous respect and admiration for the true pioneers women conductors -- women who really struggled at a time when it was not really possible for them to be appreciated as fully as they should have been -- people like Nadia Boulanger, Ethyl Smythe, Margaret Hillis, Margaret Hawkins, Sarah Caldwell, Eve Queler and Antonio Brico (I am sure that there were many others as well). Gender should not be an issue in society's view of artists. The artist brings the individuality of their life experience to their art.

>NeXt: What inspired you to create "The JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition?"

JF: The idea was the inspiration of WHRO's president Don Boswell, and two of my dear friends, the great guitarists Joanne Castellani and Michael Andriaccio. And in turn the community, guitar lovers throughout the world and I are in great debt to them. The competition, as I like to think of it, is a celebration of some of the finest young guitarists in the world, and brings the Buffalo community alive for one week every other year with the sounds of the classical guitar. [This year's competition will be held June 6-9.]

>NeXt: What has been your favorite conducting experience?

JF: It is very hard to have a favorite. Each new program at Kleinhans Music Hall brings new excitement. But I suppose the BPO's 2005 Carnegie Hall appearance would have to count as one of my favorite conducting experiences.

NeXt: Along with making music, you are also a published author. How does performing music compare to writing?

JF: Writing is a more private experience.

>NeXt: Unfortunately, New York State has cut back a lot of funding to schools, who now need to make hard decisions. What would you say to a school board that was planning on cutting its music programs?

JF: Study after study reveal that studying the arts increases cognitive thinking ability, increases interpersonal development and builds study skills. I find in my travels that the students who play in the orchestra, band, chorus, jazz band, etc., tend to also be some of the best students in every aspect of their education. Music is a powerful development tool for thinking and learning.

>NeXt: What would you say to a student thinking about going into music performance or conducting?

JF: My advice would be that if music performance or conducting is truly one's passion then it should be pursued. Financially, it can be a challenge to make a living as a musician and if the young person had strong interests in other subjects it could be wise to pursue both areas of study.

>NeXt: What is your vision for the BPO for the next 15 years?

JF: Normally one offers grandiose views in response to this question. But many orchestra and nonprofit organizations across the United States and in Europe are finding themselves in various degrees of financial difficulty. I would like to see the BPO, while maintaining its solid financial footing, continue to record, tour and find even more innovative programs to reach the Western New York community.

>NeXt: Which concert for this season do you feel would be the most interesting to teenagers, and why?

JF: Well several possibilities come to mind. For an overwhelming symphonic experience, the orchestra will be performing Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in June. And in May the orchestra will be fusing classical with jazz in two programs based on the music of Duke Ellington.

>NeXt: How do you think you could encourage younger people to come to the BPO?

JF: I would encourage them to come with friends to Kleinhans and be prepared to experience the power and beauty of live symphonic music. I assure you it is a very different and much more powerful experience than listening to classical music on an iPod.

>NeXt: How do you select guest artists that appear with the BPO?

JF: The artistic staff of the orchestra and myself meet to select from the among the many superb solo artists that are performing today. Recommendations are also received from audience members, orchestra members and board members. We are always interested in featuring artists with a relationship to Western New York.

>NeXt: What is your favorite genre of music to listen to?

JF: I enjoy many genres of music -- there are so many talented, dedicated artists in so many different musical styles. But invariably my car stereo is set to WNED.


Emily DeRoo is a junior at Williamsville North High School.