November 18, 2021

Get to Know JoAnn Falletta, Guest Conductor

JoAnn Falletta conducts the CIM Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta conducts the CIM Orchestra in Kulas Hall.

Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta talks about her week rehearsing with the CIM Orchestra, what audiences should listen for during Friday’s concert, and how the pandemic has changed her programming approach in this conversation with Director and Faculty of Digital Media Ali King. Falletta serves as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony orchestras, Principal Guest Conductor of the Brevard Music Center and Artistic Advisor of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.

How is rehearsal going?

It’s an intense, special week working with these young musicians. I came here to conduct the orchestra, but there are opportunities for so many other conversations to happen too. For instance, I’m meeting with viola and harp students to talk about audition excerpts—what to concentrate on and what my experience has been listening to and deciding on auditions from behind a screen. I believe so strongly in the environment at this school—the sense of excellence and nurturing.

What do you hope the CIM Orchestra remembers about your time working together?

I'll always marvel at the organization of an orchestra. It's like a family—everyone understands that they have to cooperate both in struggle and celebration. The orchestra is not just 85 people, but 85 distinct artists. My goal is to create a supportive platform where CIM students can be courageous and try different things without fear of judgement. I try to share big-picture concepts that they'll take to other orchestras and continue to apply when they're in leadership positions. The level of intelligence at CIM is striking and the students are quick to test out new ideas.

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews how important it is for performers to understand the historical context of a piece and its composer; what can you share about the program on Friday?

Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau is a beautiful, romantic piece and the students are playing it extraordinarily. It's the story of The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, but with a more hopeful ending than the original. Zemlinsky uses a lot of tone painting that the audience will hear to illustrate ocean creatures, mermaids saving the shipwrecked prince—even the bass clarinet as a sea witch. This is a revealing piece about unrequited love in Zemlinsky’s personal life with a composition student named Alma Schindler, who later married Gustav Mahler. Knowing he was enamored with her, frankly I think she tortured him. She was beautiful and he was not, and he struggled with terrible anti-Semitism in Vienna. He eventually fled the Nazis and moved to the United States, where he died in New York City. I think this piece is an autobiographical expression of his unhealed heartbreak.

Schnittke’s Viola Concerto is fantastic and dense; it’s a great choice by student artist Alyssa Warcup in that it’s challenging and appropriate new music for a conservatory orchestra to perform and a wonderful modern masterpiece for the audience to hear. The scoring of the piece is interesting in that there are no violins on stage; the viola section moves to the violin section, and our principal violist is the concertmaster. Written in the late twentieth century, you can hear the tragedy of what was happening in Russia at the time. The viola solo doesn’t tell a linear narrative but is captivating nonetheless—it’s a bit like seeing two people having an intense conversation through a window that you can’t quite decipher.   

In your role as Music Director, how do you decide what your audience should hear?

Some of those decisions are made based upon what's great for the orchestra to play and develop, but the most important aspect is what we’re offering our public. First and foremost, we must recognize that our audience is relying on us to put together a menu of something that they might know and enjoy, and something completely new and fascinating. It doesn't mean they're going to love everything on the program, but the trick is balancing the familiar with discovery—and that's our responsibility.

How do you welcome and educate new classical music audience members?

It’s about opening the door to intelligent, curious people. In Buffalo, we offer free pre-concert talks. The talks aren’t theoretical—they’re about what themes to listen for and what we love about the repertoire as musicians. I always try to include soloists or composers in these talks so that the audience can glimpse into the life and process of the orchestra. We started a program just this weekend where different musicians will curate a short Q&A session after the concert right on stage. Our young audition winners are real missionaries in getting people their age into the concert hall too.

Has the pandemic changed how you think about your profession?

It has given me time to think about missing voices in the concert hall, and the great music that exists, but hasn’t been heard. Most orchestras, certainly in Buffalo, realized that it's great to have this repository of beauty—we’re never going to stop playing Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven and Brahms—and that we must become a mirror of who we are as a society now, too. The orchestra is a nineteenth-century organization, but we need to incorporate twenty-first century life in a way that attracts people.

Before the pandemic, video wasn’t a priority either. It took us a while to get comfortable with it, and we know it’s important to maintain. Now that we’re back in person, though, we're trying to use it more as an enhancement—like strategic supertitles or visual aids in the lobby. We don't want people to lose their ability to simply listen, free of any directive. That’s a real gift.

What are you looking forward to this season with the Buffalo Philharmonic?

We started doing, what I would call, minimally staged operas (imagine Bizet’s Carmen with only a bench for a prop and creative lightmapping)—and I’m excited about Mozart’s Magic Flute this season, which I think will bring new people into the house. We're recording some unusual repertoire, Scriabin and Kodály for Naxos, and a choral collaboration with the Crane School of Music for the Brahms' Requiem, which had been originally scheduled for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. I’d love to do this type of project with CIM too—to have young people come and sing in the room with us is going to be very moving, and we're looking for more opportunities to work with young people in that way. We're planning on what we think will be a normal 2023, so back to some bigger pieces.

Reserve a free seat or join via livestream this Friday, November 19 at 7pm EST to experience JoAnn Falletta conduct the CIM Orchestra.