As a Female Conductor, JoAnn Falletta Stands Out in a Not-So-Crowded Field

(By Mark Dallas)
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Sunday, May 31, 2009

JoAnn Falletta, the conductor who is music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, led the National Symphony Orchestra in the recent Kennedy Center Spring Gala celebrating women in the arts, a theme close to her heart since she is still, unconscionably in this day and age, one of relatively few women in her field. A prolific recording artist on the Naxos label -- her recording of John Corigliano's "Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan" won two Grammys earlier this year -- she is looking ahead to a cornucopia of new music in the coming season, including the world premiere of a cello concerto by John Tavener in Virginia in January.

-- Anne Midgette

What are your thoughts on exploring contemporary music by women?

If I had been asked 15 years ago where we would be now, I think I would have said far ahead of where we are. . . . Programming [music] by women [generally] means doing a contemporary piece. . . . Every orchestra designates zero to 1 percent of its season for contemporary work.

Is the issue of being a woman conductor still kind of a monkey around your neck?

It hasn't gone away. People are still asking those questions. You'd think by now they would be so used to a woman conducting they wouldn't talk about it. People are less skeptical than they were 15 years ago. In the last five years things have changed. [I see] many young women conducting, [but] not all in visible positions.

The League of American Orchestras has introduced an initiative to support women conductors -- is it useful?

I think it's useful. . . . Being a conductor is a very lonely thing. We rarely have a chance to talk to any of our colleagues face to face. There's something very good about being able to call someone, ask questions they've been wondering about. It's not as simple as "What do you wear?" -- though that comes up sometimes. How do you deal with a board? How do you deal with an executive director who's not a team player?

Is it a lot of extra work to prepare all this new music?

It's a great deal of work. . . . [With familiar repertory] you take it as a given that that's the way it goes. When there's no "way it goes," you think, Now I've got to get to the heart of what the composer meant. It's a leap of faith. It's very exciting.

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