When JoAnn Falletta arrived to assume duties as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1999, hope was in short supply.
Vacant businesses seemed to outnumber thriving ones all over the city. Suburban sprawl was decimating downtown. People were leaving in greater numbers than they were arriving.
The exterior of Kleinhans Music Hall, home of the BPO since 1940, boasted patches of graffiti-covered bricks and broken glass. Buffalo felt like a place to flee, not one to plant roots in.
The state of the orchestra at that time mirrored the state of the city that was meant to support it. It was bleeding money. Budgets were not balanced. Attendance was down. Though her relentlessly optimistic disposition never suggested as much, Falletta must surely have wondered what the future held.
Today, as Falletta – the first female conductor to lead a major American orchestra – celebrates her 20th anniversary as BPO music director, the orchestra is a stronger force, both locally and nationally, than ever before.
The BPO’s budget has been balanced for 14 years running; subscriptions are at a record high; and the orchestra has become one of the most recorded ensembles of its size in the country, with several of its recordings for the NAXOS label beneath Falletta’s baton having earned Grammy nominations and wins. In 2018, the BPO announced its Crescendo campaign had raised money beyond its goal, raising $35 million and pushing the orchestra's endowment past $50 million, making it one of the few orchestras in the country to boast an endowment five times its operating budget.
Falletta has overseen all of this while simultaneously acting as music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra – a post she's held since 1991 and will relinquish next June, to focus fully on the BPO.
Twenty years into her tenure, Falletta's BPO is doing big business.
And that graffiti on the brick facade of Kleinhans? It’s long gone.
‘This is the time’
Falletta has conducted some of the most profound music ever composed. She is equally impressive when playing classical guitar. Her tenure here has meant a lot for Buffalo and to Buffalonians. However, she couldn’t be more kind, nor more disarming, when sitting down for an interview shortly after completing a few of the tasks on her ever-overflowing daily to-do list.
“You know, I think when I first got here, it was a little confusing,” Falletta said, her speech emerging in the elegant flow and cadence that is the purview of the master musician.
“The orchestra was obviously an organization that had an illustrious history. Music director after music director after music director, going all the way back to (Josef) Krips and (William) Steinberg, and all the way up to Michael Tilson Thomas and Max (Valdes), were absolute luminaries, every one of them. But the orchestra had always had patches of difficulty, financially. I think it was deeply beloved, always, by the city and the region, but there was never really a plan that could bring it to good health.
“When I arrived, I was very lucky, because at that point, the board had decided, ‘This is the time. Either we can try to fix it now, or we’re just going to see it, little by little, fall apart and go away.’ They made a tremendous commitment to making sure this dissolution didn’t happen.”
Knowing the reality of Buffalo at that time, you wonder if Falletta was a little bit worried.
“I wasn’t worried,” Falletta said with conviction. “I was very impressed by the board. They were committed and they were involved. These were all volunteers, doing this for no financial gain, but they were deeply aware of what was happening and eager to make it work. That impressed me. I had never worked with a board before that was as actively involved.
She credits board Vice Chairman Angelo Fatta and Executive Director Dan Hart with spearheading the endowment campaign that led to the BPO being "in the black" for the past 14 years. Suddenly, she said, other orchestras were looking at Buffalo, thinking, "If they can do that in Buffalo, we can certainly do it here.”
“That surprised us. Suddenly, we were a model for how to keep an orchestra solvent.”
A delicate balance
Falletta is not one to claim credit solely for herself. She routinely points to members of the broader BPO team whenever the topic of the orchestra’s turnaround during her reign is broached.
Financial solvency is one thing and artistic solidity another, however. It is in the achieving of the balance of the two that a music director’s greatest victory can be claimed.
Of all the accolades she has amassed over the past 20 years – three Grammys, a Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award, induction into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame (2010) and Western New York Women’s Hall of Fame (2005), among several dozen more – perhaps the most telling is the 2014 ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, because this is an award given ostensibly to honor the present and the future, rather than celebrating the past.
The honor suggests Falletta has been able to strike the difficult and delicate balance between bold new works, revered classics and "pops” programs – a reality every music director must address to keep her orchestra financially solvent and artistically vibrant.
“There’s always been a feeling in Buffalo, that it’s not just OK to take chances, but that to a certain extent, it’s expected. Doing new things. Making a difference in the music world," Falletta said, crediting Lukas Foss for his fearless programming in the '60s and '70s. "I’ve had that as a kind of ammunition – that we had, already, an audience that was a little more open-minded. When I came in, and NAXOS approached me to take on this recording contract, they didn’t want the Top 25 composers, they wanted lesser-known and unknown composers. We could do that, because our audience was willing to listen.
“The adventurous programming you mention is really down to their willingness to be a part of it.”
That is reflected in Falletta’s 20th anniversary celebration, including special programming and events listed at bpo.org/joann20.
In addition to her commitment to new music, Falletta has embraced various area cultural institutions, forging relationships that produce benefits beyond the bottom line – you might not be able to quantify those benefits, but you can sense them.
A 2018 television ad campaign for retailer Macy's, for example, cast Falletta as a key figure in its "Remarkable You" promotional gambit. This speaks to Falletta's ability to embody the BPO and transcend it.
For Ed Cardoni, executive director of Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Falletta's BPO has summoned feelings of civic pride and hope for the future.
"The term 'world-class' is overused, and I’m about to overuse it myself," Cardoni said. "It’s important to me that Buffalo, small as it is, has an international border and a Great Lake and world-class art museums and art centers, and a world-class jazz scene, and world-class architecture. Certainly having a world-class orchestra that plays in one of those world-class buildings just a short walk through an Olmsted park from that border and our Great Lake and the headwaters of a mighty river whose name everyone knows — and along with all that, an orchestra that is led artistically by a woman conductor — produces an uplifting effect that just makes me very proud to live here."
Warmth, depth and muscle
Under Falletta’s leadership, the BPO has grown into an ensemble renowned for its visceral power, as evidenced by the NAXOS recordings, as well as those released via the Beau Fleuve imprint, an independent label Falletta helped to launch. There also is a depth there, an ability to explore and indulge in a broad dynamic range, that suggests a well-rounded orchestra hitting its prime.
“What you’re saying, I believe, is something that I really feel to be true of the orchestra,” Falletta said. “That’s this: The BPO is a hybrid of European warmth and depth and American muscle.”
That’s it, really, but there’s something more, too. Something that, perhaps, Falletta learned while studying as a postgraduate at the Juilliard School where she encountered legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein.
“Juilliard was, of course, very competitive, and we had plenty of teachers who were not eager to give praise, who were always saying, ‘It’s not good enough; do better,’ ” she recalled. “That was good – that’s how they teach at Juilliard. They’re very, very tough on you.
"When Bernstein would come in, the whole school was abuzz. Everyone wanted to see him. The room would be stuffed, not just with the orchestra, but with students from other departments, who just wanted to be there, to feel his aura, to be in the presence of this great man. We were terrified. The wonderful, beautiful thing was, Bernstein must’ve felt that, because he was so kind and gentle with us. We always left the room feeling that we’d learned a lot and that we’d survived it.”
What stuck with Falletta, all these years on from those master classes in conducting, standing shoulder to shoulder with Bernstein?
“He always emphasized the idea that we shouldn’t become too hung up on the mechanics of music-making. He’d say, ‘Forget about all of that – it’s about the drama. It’s about the emotion in this music.’ He was thinking only about the music. When he conducted, the orchestra followed that. They just understood what he meant. That was a huge lesson for me, that music transcended technique. You need the technique to get there, in the first place, but ultimately, you need to transcend that.”
In John Mauceri’s just-published “For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening,” Bernstein reveres Beethoven for “giving away his life and energies just to make sure that one note follows another with complete inevitability. … (He) leaves us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in this world … something that follows its own law consistently, something we can trust and that will never let us down.”
Falletta beams at the quote.
“Isn’t that the best quote you’ve ever read? It’s so true. That’s why people come to concerts. Even if they can’t put it into words, as Bernstein did so eloquently, they know this: When you leave the hall, you feel better about being a human being. You feel better about life in general. You feel an optimism, somehow. You don’t even have to talk about it, but you feel it, that something clicked and was right. It gives you the energy and the strength to go on.
"There’s something incredibly healing about that. All of us making this music, all of us who have worked so hard to be able to become an agent of this music – we’re ennobled by this.
“This is why we do what we do.”
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