Music is love.
There are a bazillion songs written about love. Don’t bother looking that up. I made it up.
I’m not even sure that a bazillion is an official metric of measure, but it sounds about right. When it comes to love, Haddaway asked what it was. There’s a book The Monotones once referenced, but they never learned who wrote it. And, though Meat Loaf declared he’d do anything for love, some people still don’t know what he wouldn’t do.
Love sometimes proves to be an elusive thing this time of year, but JoAnn Falletta has a handle on it. The Grammy Award-winning conductor seems to describe it as she shares the “amazing” feeling of fronting an orchestra.
“I feel like I’m in the middle of a force field of energy,” Falletta said. “And, the talent surrounding me is astonishing. The musicians and what they can do, and how they play their instruments. So, for me, it feels like I’m almost levitating because of their energy and the sheer beauty that I’m in the middle of.”
On Valentine’s Day this Friday, Falletta steps up to the podium in front of the Albany Symphony as guest conductor. She will lead the orchestra through selections of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and other works at Proctors. It’s a special night to draw the Albany Symphony out of the Palace Theatre. It’s quite another feat to have someone else other than its own Grammy Award-winning conductor David Alan Miller at the podium.
Falletta is lauded in the global music scene as one of the best conductors in a generation. Washington Post’s music critic Joe Banno bestowed his respect upon her while she headed the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. It was 20 years ago when he watched her lead an “unusually young and fresh-faced lot” through its debut performance at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center.
“Few women have been able to establish high-profile conducting careers, and of those who have, fewer still have Falletta’s talent,” wrote Banno. “Toscanini’s tight control over ensemble, Walter’s affectionate balancing of inner voices and Stokowski’s gutsy showmanship.”
Name a city in the United States that has an orchestra and Falletta has stood before it. Philadelphia. Los Angeles. San Francisco. Dallas. St. Louis. Milwaukee. Indianapolis. Seattle. San Diego. Detroit. The National Symphony too. She has guest conducted over one hundred orchestras in North America and many of the most prominent orchestras in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. But while she’s not traveling, she returns to the City of Light, where she serves as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is the crown jewel of an arts and music scene Proctors CEO Philip Morris admires. At a December meeting of the Albany Roundtable, Morris revered Buffalo’s efforts to maintain its “inherited” heirlooms from when it was the 15th largest city in the union a century ago. While addressing Proctors’ plans for the new home of Albany’s Capital Repertory Theater, he spoke of how the local arts community could aspire to own a similar scene.
“Buffalo has one big Broadway house. Buffalo has one professional orchestra. Buffalo has one unbelievably spectacular art museum,” said Morris. “How do we capture the fact that we are in this region, in such a way that in 10 years, we can actually compete with Buffalo?”
Kleinhans Music Hall, from which the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra performs, is one of those heirlooms.
Built in 1940, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra christened Kleinhans Music Hall with its inaugural performance. Since then, the hall has experienced a few significant milestones. In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there to help mend the city after a violent riot. From inside the hall, he said, “We are moving toward the day when we will judge a man by his character and ability instead of by the color of his skin.” And in 1999, Falletta became the first female conductor to lead a major American ensemble when she was named music director of its orchestra.
“Especially when I first started, being a woman in a male-dominated career was something I became very, very aware of,” said Falletta. “I wasn’t aware when I first started to study, but I became very aware of it.”
Falletta first fell in love with music when she was 7 and began studying classical guitar. She later earned her undergraduate degree from the Mannes School of Music and her master’s and doctorate degrees from The Juilliard School. In addition to her accolades earned on the podium, she has appeared as guitarist, mandolinist and lutenist with several orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Juilliard Orchestra. She has received wide critical acclaim for her guitar chamber music recordings with the Virginia Arts Festival.
Throughout her career, Falletta has observed the music scene opening up and allowing more opportunities for women conductors. As an example, 33-year-old Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was up for the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in January. Falletta had earned her first individual Grammy Award in 2019.
“I feel very lucky that I was able to study and be accepted as a woman,” Falletta said. “Or, as a conductor, I should say. Not as a woman conductor, but as a conductor. But, I’m very happy to see that things are changing for women now.”
The maestra said she looks forward to the end of her four-hour drive from Buffalo for the conversations and shared performances. She will share the stage with soloist Jill Levy on violin and with an orchestra she respects for “their open-mindedness and their energy.”
“This is an orchestra that’s done a lot of unusual things, and they’re not daunted by anything,” Falletta said with a laugh. “They’ve done everything and they’re adventure seekers.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.