JoAnn Falletta

Grammy-winning conductor JoAnn Falletta is a multi-hyphenate of the classical music scene, with a biography that ventures far beyond the podium and into neighboring worlds of poetry, magazine writing, mentorship, cultural advocacy and live studio recording. Performance Today named her the 2019 Woman of the Year, heralding her quiet, systematic dismantling of the “male maestro” stereotype, her flawless technique and her “scintillating and sensual rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade,’ ” the very piece she’ll conduct this weekend with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in its season opener. We caught up with Falletta before her trip to Arkansas, her first time in The Natural State.

So, you have this career that is sort of conducting and then some, right? You do workshops and mentorship for upcoming women conductors, you’ve written magazine articles for the New York Concert Review and Symphony Magazine. You’ve written a book of poetry, called “Love Letters to Music.” Why, for you, is it important to step away from the podium and away from the rehearsal process and do these other types of work?

In terms of writing, I think it’s very important for musicians — for all of us — to be able to communicate what music is about, and why we live our lives in music, to the audience, to the public. There are so many people who are interested in music, but who don’t really know the inside story.

I’ve always loved writing. That’s really when the poetry started. It was a kind of diary to myself, but a friend pointed out that people would be interested in knowing how a musician thinks, and why, and what the piece means. So it’s just another way of communicating, and I think we all in this industry have a responsibility to help younger people in this business to answer their questions, to be their mentors. It’s a kind of career where you have to make your own way. You need advice. There’s not a blueprint that you can follow and say, “OK, if I do this, then this will happen, and then I’ll get this job.” It’s not like that at all.

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You are also known as a recording artist with Naxos and have an illustrious discography with that revered classical label that ranges from Wagner to Gershwin to Stravinski. So, this process, as I understand it, is quite different from making music in a hall for a live audience. What’s your approach to the sort of perfection that this caliber of recording demands? How do you decide what to be meticulous about and what to let go?

You know, I was approached by Naxos 20 years ago to sign on as one of their artists with the BPO — the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra — and it was a real challenge for us, because the recordings have to be perfect. And we had to learn how to do that. … In the end, what it did for us over these 20 years is that it made the orchestra so much stronger because of that challenge, because of the idea of “This is going to be on a CD, and it’s gonna be heard all over the world, and it has to be perfect.”

I couldn’t help but notice that among those bigger names are some lesser heralded works. Do you have any personal sort of soft spots when it comes to lesser-known composers — anybody whose name isn’t a household name, but who we should check out?

Well, that, really, is kind of my mission, and Naxos has encouraged me to do that. They didn’t want us to record the Beethoven symphonies or the Brahms symphonies. They wanted me to find unknown or little-known repertoire of the past — these treasures that have somehow fallen through the cracks or have been forgotten about for any number of reasons: politics, or sometimes from a country that’s in the middle of a war, so the music is lost.

So for 20 years I’ve become like a detective, always searching for little-known music. I’ve found some pieces that I think are so beautiful. The one that was most obscure was by a man named Marcel Tyberg, an Austrian composer who was Jewish and who was murdered in Auschwitz. And who before he was taken to Auschwitz by the Nazis, left his music with a student. The student, who had become a doctor, came and found me, actually, and said, “Please take a look at this music.” And it was wonderful. And we recorded it. So that was maybe the most unusual way of finding repertoire.

What a great story, and how tenuous a connection that was. If it had broken down at any point, the music would have been lost.

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It would have been lost forever without this doctor. And the doctor, by the time I met him, he was in his 70s. And he said, “I’ve been holding this music for my teacher all my life.” And he knew his teacher had been killed. And he said, “I’ve asked all these conductors, and no one was interested. You’re my last chance.” He said, “I’m not going to live much longer, and the music is going to die. Nobody else cares about it.” And what convinced me was his passion for his teacher. I mean, how many students would carry that music around from Europe to the United States, and to always have it with them because their teacher asked them to take care of it?

The Washington Post has a particularly glowing line that you use in your biography. They say you have “Toscanini’s tight control over ensemble, Walter’s affectionate balancing of inner voices, Stokowski’s gutsy showmanship, and a controlled frenzy worthy of Bernstein.” And I love that, because it tells us some very specific things about your style. But I also notice, of course, these are all men. And I wonder if, say, a century from now, someone were to attribute some quality to your conducting — to say that so-and-so had “JoAnn Falletta’s whatever,” what would you want that to be?

I think first and foremost for my sense of sound. The sound of the orchestra. That’s very important — the beauty of the sound. That would be the ultimate for me.

Another thing I also treasure about a good conducting style is flexibility, inclusion. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, for example, that the “Scheherazade” is their own, that it’s not a cookie-cutter copy of another “Scheherazade” that I might have done three years ago. That attention to the individual voices of the orchestra is very important to me.

Any common misconceptions about conducting in general? Like, about what people think you do vs. what you actually do?

Well, you know, there are a lot of people who don’t think the conductor’s doing much of anything. When I’m talking to groups and ask if there are any questions and they’re a little shy, I always say, “Well, I’ll ask the first question. Are the musicians actually watching me?” And they all laugh, because they were thinking that. They were just embarrassed to ask it.

A colleague of mine here wanted me to ask: Do you air-conduct when listening alone in the car or on the subway, like we air-drum or air-guitar?

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Yes! In fact, especially when you’re starting, you practice conducting by doing that, by making the motions you have to make for the musicians. Your body learns physically how to do it, and you have to get to the point where you’re not thinking about doing it — where your body is just doing it naturally. So, yes, there’s plenty of air conducting, in school and otherwise.

courtesy of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta

How do you feel about the fact that your gender is such a prominent part of the way people know you as a conductor? Is it still important in 2019 to talk about “women conductors,” and to refer to you as a “female conductor?”

When I started in the ’80s, it was always mentioned. Because there weren’t that many of us! So it was an unusual thing, and wasn’t something everyone was even comfortable with. But I was sure then that within 10 years, 15 years, that we wouldn’t be calling someone a “woman conductor.” But I was wrong. It’s taken much longer to get over that sort of male stereotype of a conductor. It may be starting to happen now. I don’t know. There are more women on the podium. But even then, they talk more about the fact that they’re a woman than they talk about their interpretation of the Brahms symphony. It still hasn’t gotten to the point where it’s not the first thing people think about.

Right. And I wonder if that’s frustrating to someone like you, who does have a distinctive style. You know that the way you conduct a Brahms symphony is different than the way a colleague — of whatever gender — would do it.

It can be frustrating, although I do think it’s changing. Orchestras definitely evaluate you in a more serious way. I mean, they know if your conducting is organic and makes sense and is compelling. It’s just that in a public way sometimes, it’s easier to look for the big things, like being a woman. It used to be much worse when I first started. They would talk about my hairstyle and the kind of outfit I was wearing. They hardly critiqued the concert, because it was as if they couldn’t get past the fact that someone was a woman. So that’s definitely changed.

You can’t imagine that a review — then or now — would say, “So-and-so came out, and his coattails were like this, and his cufflinks were like this …”

They would never do that! But classical music is so traditional. It’s very slow to change because it’s an art form based on tradition. The conductor was, for a couple of centuries, I guess, male. Many people still think that way.

Your biography also says you’re an avid reader, so I wanted to ask: What you have been reading that’s moved you or stirred you?

Well, I just read “The Goldfinch,” and it is a magnificent book. I realize it’s coming up as a movie, but I always want to read the book first, before I see the movie, because the book always has so much more in it. And I read mostly fiction. Fiction is my great escape. But I do love reading about composers and their lives, or even the historical background of a period that gives rise to music that is difficult and angry and searching. All of that helps you understand it.