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JoAnn Falletta: Exclusive Interview: May 4, 2010

JoAnn Falletta Interview
Dohnanyi: Variations on a Nursery Song
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta

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Tracks:29

Naxos
Rel. 25 May 2010

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Corigliano: Violin Concerto, "The Red Violin" - Phantasmagoria
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta

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Tracks:5

Naxos
Rel. 25 May 2010

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Best of JoAnn Falletta
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On Friday, April 16, 2010, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with acclaimed and Grammy Award-winning conductor JoAnn Falletta – the principal conductor of two eminent American orchestras, the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony. This month, Ms. Falletta releases two new CDs on the Naxos label, featuring the music of Ernst von Dohnányi and John Corigliano – both of which receive an Exclusive Digital Pre-release here on Classical Archives! In this inspiring and wide-ranging interview, Ms. Falletta discusses the music associated with these two new releases, as well as future discs (including a fascinating premiere recording of music by Marcel Tyberg), the challenges and rewards of conducting two distinct orchestras, the obligations of musicians to the life of their communities, and much more. Don’t miss this delightful and provocative discussion!

“There is nothing more inspiring or more energizing than being in the middle of a symphony orchestra, surrounded by this extraordinary body of talented musicians, who are playing at a high level – it’s nothing less than a thrill!”
– JoAnn Falletta

Nolan Gasser:  Well, there's no busy career like that of a busy conductor – of which you certainly qualify, and this seems to be a particularly active season for you, not only in performances, but also in recordings.  If I'm not mistaken, you have two albums coming out in May, and then two others coming out in the fall – all on the Naxos label­; that’s quite a line-up!

JoAnn Falletta:  Yes, that's right; in September there’s an album of music by [American composer] Jack Gallagher; and in October the premiere recording of Marcel Tyberg’s Third Symphony; and in May there are new albums of music by Corigliano and Dohnányi, a follow-up to our recording of his violin concertos – do you know that one?

NG: I certainly do; it's a wonderful recording of two great works – and a great example of your talent for introducing us to important works that have been forgotten or hidden.

JF:  Thank you; and yes, I'm really happy about the new Dohnányi album, especially with this year being the 50th anniversary of his death – and no one is marking this, no one seems to remember, and it's particularly sad because he's a magnificent composer. So, we've got the Suite in F# Minor [Op.19], the Symphonic Minutes [Op.36], and the Variations on a Nursery Song [Op.25].

NG:  Sounds terrific – and except for the Variations, not well-known works.  Well, at least you’re doing your part in helping us celebrate the anniversary of this important composer.  What was the impetus for the album – did it arise in response to your recording the Dohnányi violin concertos [Opp. 27 and 43], and realizing how much more of his music needs to get out there?

JF:  Well, yes, and in fact, Naxos is a great partner because they've been willing to listen to all of my ideas about composers whose works should be recorded more, like Dohnányi or [Josef] Suk, in addition to contemporary composers like John Corigliano.  They've been really wonderfully open-minded, and so it's given us a chance to explore a repertoire that many people don't know.

To me, Dohnanyi is a great discovery because he's a composer of an enormous European tradition, a beautiful Hungarian voice, very important, and almost forgotten.  And it's particularly sad because Dohnányi was an American citizen at the end of his life; he was finally able to leave Europe ­–­ he came to Florida, and was a very important force in musical life and education in that state. But all that seems to have been forgotten. So bringing him back – he died in 1960 – to mark his fiftieth death anniversary with this recording is very important, and the pieces on it are stunning: his Suite in F# Minor is truly his masterpiece – it's a great work for orchestra, with a lot of Hungarian tradition within it, and written in a very sophisticated style; his Variations on a Nursery Song is again very sophisticated, superb writing, with a great sense of humor – which I think is another one of his particular trademarks; and then the Symphonic Minutes is also beautiful; fantastic writing for the orchestra, harkening back to Hungarian folk music. I'm so delighted to have a chance to do this album and to have it come out now.

NG:  And Dohnányi was himself a conductor – which makes for nice personal connection for you. I think it’s in part because he's a rather more conservative figure than some of his contemporaries – notably his fellow Hungarian, Béla Bartók – that he is not given the attention he deserves. But in listening, for example, to the violin concertos – they’re so rich, and have this wonderful balance of traditional and modern techniques, and he has such a gift for melody.

JF:  You're right, and the violin concertos, as you say, are extraordinary – and that was the first recording I made of his music, with [violinist] Michael Ludwig, who's really a superstar on the instrument.  He makes a case for these two concertos, and has played them in several places. This is a great Romantic concerto, and so it makes me very happy when people ask, “Why haven't we heard this piece before?”

And you're right, Nolan; I think it's partly because he was still a Romantic voice in a time of great change.  And also in a tragic way, his life was so much clouded by the Second World War, and by being caught in the web of the Nazis, and then the Communists coming into Hungary, and finally getting away from it – having lost his son and his son-in-law to the Nazis – it's a tragic life. So, marking this great composer has been a joy for us.

NG: Well, this really is part of the process of how works get discovered and become known – by being championed by conductors and performers; indeed, it's part of our obligation as musicians to go back in the past and seek out buried musical treasures, as well as to expose audiences to music that's being written in our own time – of which you are also a great example.

And on that note, you mentioned that the other recording that is coming out in May, again with violinist Michael Ludwig, is of John Corigliano’s Red Violin Concerto.

JF:  Right, and this is an epic recording, an epic piece.  I've gotten to know John very well, and we've recorded his music before, his Mr. Tambourine Man.

NG:  Yes, I know that very well – and hope to talk about it as well.

JF:  Oh, good. Well, this one is a recording of his Red Violin Concerto, which is a piece that was partly drawn from the movie that so many people know, “The Red Violin” – the story of this violin through the centuries, and the lives that it touches; it's a very beautiful and haunting movie.  John expanded on the music he wrote for it into a full-fledged, formal violin concerto.  And it's extraordinarily difficult; wild, absolutely wild music – but also extremely beautiful, and this is only the second recording of this piece made; Josh Bell made the first recording and Michael has now made this one for Naxos. 

It’s an amazing piece, that's all I can say.  It's a tour de force for the soloist, it's fantastically interesting, and John is the consummate orchestrator.  He writes in a way that brings out sounds like you've never imagined from a symphony orchestra – wild glissandos and treatment of the strings, and in aleatoric [random or chance] sections; it’s just like a kaleidoscope of effects and extraordinary sound being drawn from the orchestra – along with moments of absolute, sheer beauty as well. So, it was exciting to perform this piece, and to have it come out now. 

We did the recording with John, and that made it so important for me; John was here in Buffalo for the performance, rehearsals, and recording – so we were able to hear from him first-hand exactly what he wanted: what the balance should be, what he wanted to bring out, what tempo was exactly right, what he was thinking of… and that's a thrill for me, for all of us, to be in the presence of the composer, and work hand-in-hand with him – and to know that the recording coming out is exactly what he wanted to hear. 

NG:  Well, you may know that I was able to conduct a wonderful interview with John here on Classical Archives – one of the highlights of my career as an interviewer, in fact.  He is such an articulate man, and such a consummate thinker as well as composer. We talked, for example, about his work on his percussion concerto [Conjurer] for Evelyn Glennie; John discussed in great detail the way he worked toward the opening performance, some of the challenges posed by Evelyn’s hearing condition, and how distinctly he approached the orchestration of the work – even “inventing” a new percussion instrument. So, yes I would imagine he would be very hands-on working with a recording, and very open to a dialogue with the musicians to get it just right.  

JF:  Well, you are so right.  He is definitely very hands-on, and I love that about him.  I mean, he was on the stage with us during rehearsals, and he's walking up to the clarinet section, and talking to the principal bassist, and he's wandering and giving suggestions, he's having us try wild things.  I remember during the recording he had our Eb clarinetist stand on a chair and play his instrument upwards toward the ceiling to get more sound…

NG:  That's a great visual.

JF:  Yeah, we absolutely loved it!  He's very involved, and challenging too.  He wants the best, and I think the musicians responded to that.  They didn't want to just hear someone say, “Oh, that's fine,” they wanted to hear, “That's good, but it can be even better...” And the result was that the performances and the recording were electrifying – because he was there, and he was our inspiration.

NG:  Well, I'm sure he’s very happy to work with you again as well, given the great success the two of you had with the work you just mentioned, the Bob Dylan settings, Mr. Tambourine Man, which garnered a couple of Grammy Awards.  And indeed, I’m wondering how exactly that came about – that you came to be the conductor to record the work, in what has clearly became an important recording. 

JF: I actually had done the piece once before, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic – I think that was the second performance; it had been premiered in Minnesota, and the second performance was the New York premier with the Brooklyn Philharmonic – and I’m from Brooklyn, so that made it very special. After the performance, I said to John, “Wow, I'm absolutely knocked out by this piece; I think it’s going to be looked at as one of the greatest works of the new century; let us do it in Buffalo and record it.”  And he said, “Yes, let's do it!” So he gave us permission to record it in Buffalo, and it was an amazing journey. 

We had a soprano who was uniquely gifted for this piece, Hila Plitmann – who sang these settings of Bob Dylan poetry with all of the persona and acting ability of a flower child of the 1960s. Now, John admires Bob Dylan's poetry – and, of course, he took the words alone, and set them to his own, wild music. You might think this a strange thing to say, but at the end of the performance, I don't think there was anyone in the audience not crying.  He brings us on this journey, from innocence to conflict and turmoil, and at the end, the final song is “Forever Young” – and at that point, everyone in that audience is so touched. John has done that for us: he's brought us on a half-hour journey through a part of our lives – especially for those of us who know what the sixties were like, even as children; those words of Bob Dylan are still so relevant today, and John exploded them with colors, and with a new approach that is so dramatic and so powerful.

NG:  Well, I certainly agree, and have been a big fan of John's for a long time.  He’s very modest, at least in our conversation, but there's no doubt he is among the giants of our time, and I think he has really helped to take music in a very positive direction for all composers of our day.  We had a long discussion about some of the challenges he had being a composer growing up in the sixties, and the commonplace alienation between the audience and the composer ­­­– and this just didn't set well with him; I think we're all very fortunate that he kept to his principles, and he’s among those who helped usher in a great era of new music – one which we are in today. 

Now, I was very tickled in my discussion with John on the Dylan settings – actually, a bit incredulous ­­– when he said that he didn't know Dylan's music when he was setting these texts, songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind”; but he noted how he probably heard them in coffee shops, but as they only use three or four chords, in consistently eight-bar phrases, they didn't really stimulate him. So, I'm assuming that you likewise kept Dylan's music out of your thinking when you were preparing the score?

JF:  That is very interesting, and I was also one of those saying “How could he not have heard ‘Blowing in the Wind’?” But you know, he grew up in a classical family ­– with his father being Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic; and as you said, it was probably in the background somewhere, but nothing he paid much attention to.  But since I do know several of those songs, I actually had a kind of dual experience: I could almost imagine hearing the “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” that I knew, within John's music; and John has commented that a lot of people have had that same experience.  They can't forget what they know from Bob Dylan's melodies, and they hear it in some sort of vague way while they're hearing this new music, and it's very effective. 

NG:  One of my favorite pieces in John's setting is “Masters of War,” and I was telling him about how that's actually one of my favorite settings by Dylan himself as well – with a great rhythmic and dark-harmonic musical accompaniment; and again John didn't know that particular tune – so the lyrics were particularly inspirational to both composers.

JF:  Well, it's a tribute to Dylan: those lyrics are very powerful, and they transcend any one particular age; that's one of my favorites too, and I also love “Chimes of Freedom” –the idea of celebrating all of the disenfranchised people, the poor people, the people who exist on the edges of society; the themes of the people who are at the core of our country, and it's very beautiful.

NG: In my interview, I asked John if he knew whether Dylan himself had heard the settings, or if he had commented; and as far as he knew, Dylan had never heard it, nor did John think he’d be interested.  Do you have any information to the contrary?

JF:  No, in fact we tried to find that out; we tried to get Bob Dylan to come and hear this – but all we know is that he gave permission for his lyrics to be used; but I can't imagine that he's never heard it.

NG:  I can't either; Dylan actually is a pretty eclectic guy, and I think he has some pretty sophisticated ears.

JF:  Yes, well you would think that he would have been interested to listen to it; so I'm hoping he has, and maybe some day he'll tell us what he thinks.

NG: Well, we'll see if we can get a hold of him somehow and ask him.

So, let’s turn now to one of the other projects you mentioned earlier, coming out in October – about which I’m very curious; namely, the recording and overall project involving the music of the Austrian composer Marcel Tyberg [1893-1944] – which is a fascinating story historically, as well as for you locally in Buffalo.  For those of our readers not familiar with this story, can you give a brief review of what it's all about?

JF:  Sure. Marcel Tyberg is a name that no one has heard of, because his music is totally unknown.  He was born in Vienna, but was working in Abbazia, Italy during the Second World War; and because of his partly Jewish heritage, he was taken by the Nazis and executed at Auschwitz.  But before being deported, he entrusted his music to his friend, Milan Mihich, who in turn passed it to his son, Enrico Mihich – who in fact had been Tyberg’s piano and composition student.

Enrico eventually wound up in Buffalo, NY, as a doctor in our cancer hospital, Roswell Park, which is a very famous hospital here.  And one day, he came to see me, holding a couple of big shopping bags of music, and he said, “I've been trying and trying to get someone to look at this music; no one will look at it, please look at it – this was my teacher!” I looked at this music and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be difficult,” because it was all hand-written and the manuscript paper was falling apart …

NG:  After 60 years, I can imagine.

JF:  Yes, it was a mess; but this man was so passionate about it, so I said, “Okay, Dr. Mihich, leave it with me and I'll try to make my way through it.”  And it wasn't easy – it was even hard to read the manuscript. I looked at some of the pages and I said, “Well, this is a kind of next step from Bruckner.” It was very Austrian, which of course makes sense. And I began to feel this sense of thrill, but also a bit of fear too, because here I was holding something that no one had ever heard – it was like the onus of sacred trust; what do we do with this?  So we undertook a project to bring this music to life, and the first part has been his Third Symphony, his final symphony – which is an amazing piece; it just is an astonishingly wonderful post-Brucknerian piece of music, with touches of Mahler, and touches of Schumann….

NG:  Yes, I had read that the Third Symphony was “on the scale of Mahler”, and I was going to ask you about the style of the work – since it was written in the 1940's.

JF:  Exactly, it was written in the 40s, and it's definitely not cutting edge; it's not looking forward to the 21st Century at all – it's really looking back, and following in the tradition of people who were obviously his heroes: Schumann, for instance, there's a lot of echoes of him; and some of [Alexander von] Zemlinksy, and a lot of Bruckner and Mahler. And the symphony is big! It's large-scale, lots of extra woodwinds; it even starts out with a tenor tuba solo …

NG:  [Laughs] A tenor tuba solo?

JF:  A tenor tuba solo! It's an amazing piece!  So, we recorded that, and we also started to record his chamber music; there's a beautiful trio for piano, violin and cello …

NG: Which is also going to be on the same album, right?

JF:  Yes, that's right, and we have plans now to record his Second Symphony, this season coming up; and the word is getting out about his music, and it's been like a dream come true that we've found this treasure in Buffalo – and it just happens to be truly wonderful music. 

And it's become a labor of love, for our orchestra as well.  I mean, you can imagine doing a big romantic symphony for the first time – there were lots of things we had to correct, a lot of wrong notes in the parts; things that we couldn't really see, wondering: “Is this harmony correct or not?  What did he mean here?  What about this tempo marking?” And I have to say that the Buffalo Philharmonic, every musician, was totally committed to this.  We spent hours looking at the score and parts, trying to analyze what's right and what's wrong; and I think we came up with the best effort we could for cleaning this up, and making it ready for other performances. It was then an overwhelming feeling to give the world premiere performance of this piece – knowing that he never heard it, and probably never dreamed that it would be played.

NG:  Although he did know that his music was worthy of being saved – despite knowing that his own future was grim; and so he entrusted it to a good friend.

JF:  That's right, that's right.

NG:  In these days where funds for the arts are so limited, and when we hear stories of orchestras feuding with management, this sounds like such a wonderfully spiritual and community-oriented project that brought everyone together; it's very impressive, and I think a good model for other orchestras to see what's in their own backyard. 

JF:  And it was! It brought together the medical community, which was very touched and moved that one of their doctors had this treasure; our orchestra was involved, the Jewish community, of course, was very involved… And the idea that this composer’s whole life had been taken from him, and without the fact that this doctor had saved this music, he would be totally lost to history.  So we are so particularly proud of that, and grateful to Naxos for saying, “Yes, go ahead and do this.”

NG:  Yes, it's very commendable on their part.

JF: Yes, they’ve been a great partner to me – in terms of trust and risk-taking with the different things that we've done.

NG:  It certainly seems that way.  The story, though, is so sad ­– Tyberg was only 1/16th Jewish, but that's all that it took for this tragedy to unfold.

JF:  Yes, that's all that it took. And in fact, his mother was very innocent in that way: when the law came out that you had to declare any Jewish heritage, her friends discouraged her, saying “Don't say anything.” But she said, “No, this is the law.” And simply because of that, he did lose his life.  It’s a great tragedy, but the wonderful thing is that now the music has arrived, and we're hoping it's going to make its way to many, many other performances.  We've already had lots of inquiries from places – from Phoenix, Arizona to Dresden, Germany; even Abbazia, Italy.

NG:  The little town where he lived.

JF:  Yes, the Mayor wants to play the symphony there in Abbazia as an honor to Tyberg, and in memory of the citizens who were so brutally taken from that city.  So, it's really reaching out now; for the concept of re-discovering a lost voice is very important.  It's not just the music that we know – that by Beethoven and Mozart, as great as it is; there are many voices – like Suk and Dohnányi, and Tyberg – who are so worth knowing. And Naxos has given us that opportunity.

NG: Well, I'm very eager to hear it, and we'll look forward to featuring it when it comes out. 

So, let's step back a little bit and talk about you.  You are currently the full-time music director of two very vibrant American orchestras – in Buffalo and Virginia, and a frequent guest conductor throughout the U.S. and abroad, including some pretty distinguished orchestras.  That's a lot of concerts to program, lots of scores to study, lots of musicians and administrators to deal with.  Can you talk a little bit about your philosophy for handling such an active and varied schedule, and how you keep yourself inspired and motivated – and not too exhausted?

JF:  [laughs] Well, the exhausted part I don't know – I think that’s an inevitable result. But in terms of inspiration, it comes really from two sources in overwhelming measure: and that's the musicians themselves, and the music.  There is nothing more inspiring or more energizing than being in the middle of a symphony orchestra surrounded by this extraordinary body of talented musicians, who are playing at a high level – it’s nothing less than a thrill!  And we're really in the middle – whether it’s Mozart, or Dohnányi, or Schubert, or whatever else we're doing; we're in the middle of great music! I think I will never get over the thrill of that, and it's something that for the rest of my life I will feel privileged, really, to be on the podium in the middle of music like that. 

That for me is the compelling force, and being tired and traveling a lot is only a small price to pay for this privilege. Both orchestras are wonderful, and they're valued and treasured by their community.  They have quite different personalities from one another, and I program a little bit differently for the two communities – which have different characters. But working with Buffalo and Virginia allows me to bring something to both orchestras – what I learn in Buffalo I can bring to Virginia, and vice versa.  I think that keeps me fresh ­– and certainly learning a lot of new music, whether it's [American composer] Eric Ewazen’s new percussion concerto, which we're doing this week with Evelyn Glennie, or something by Josef Suk, who's not very well known, but who has truly a beautiful and romantic voice.  That keeps me learning and growing all the time.

NG: Well, you've touched upon the question I was going to ask: you’ve noted how each orchestra has its own personality, as a composite of the musicians within them, and how a conductor needs to be able to respond accordingly.  I was thus wondering if you've come to find some real distinctions, not only in the communities, but in the orchestras themselves – if, for example, Buffalo excels in one segment of the repertoire or one parameter of music and Virginia in another; or when you come upon a new score, you think, “This would be perfect for Buffalo, or this one would be better for Virginia”?

JF:  They are different; but sometimes what I like to do is to choose pieces that may be a bit outside of the comfortable repertoire of both orchestras, so they can grow.  Buffalo is an orchestra that has developed a rich, European sound.  Now, perhaps that's from its original music directors, Josef Krips and William Steinberg; but in any event it has a heavy, rich sound, especially in the strings, and our hall, Kleinhans Music Hall, enhances that, and helps us develop it all the time. We just played on tour Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, which is the quintessential Buffalo Philharmonic piece.  They played it par excellence, with a great sense of weight and gravity ­– and sheer beauty of sound.  What I've tried to do in Buffalo is to introduce a lot of new music, and a lot of music that requires quick thinking, quick changing, lots of different sounds – like in Corigliano; and they’ve become even more skilled at doing things they hadn’t done before. 

Now, Virginia is a very young orchestra; mostly young people coming right from college or conservatory – and they are really ready for new things; and they do them very well. We’ve been doing some Brahms, and that kind of repertoire, which requires a weightiness of sound.  I try to push them out of their comfort level – but both orchestras remain individual, and that's a lot about how they play as individual musicians: how each principal oboe plays, how the horn sections plays, etc. – and it's delightful to see that, and it's taught me that every orchestra is so different.

So, the lesson I’ve learned is that as a conductor, you come in with a strong concept of the piece, but you have to allow a lot of room for who the orchestra is; you have to let them be themselves, because it's their concert!  You have to let them inform the piece with their own personality.  And that is what’s thrilling to me: to hear how that happens, to hear how a Brahms may sound different in Virginia from Buffalo, because of who the musicians are, how they feel about the music, and what their background is – and to leave room for that to happen; to understand that music is always different, is always changing, and always fluid.

NG:  Yes, and that's something that you've mentioned in the past – how a conductor really does need to respond to the orchestra; and I guess you have to do it on the fly when you're a guest conductor and just coming in for a few concerts: you have this impression of how the piece should sound, but then you have to correlate that with how the musicians are playing it.  But it must be a different type of experience when you're performing something in Virginia or in Buffalo, since you clearly do know these orchestras.  So there must be a nice dialogue that takes place in your mind even while you're studying the score.

JF:  Right, exactly.  And when you guest conduct, you have to get to know the guest orchestra very quickly; you have to assess even in the first 15 or 30 minutes who that orchestra is, how they like to work, how they best work, and what concept of sound they have, even unconsciously – because not all of them can articulate what they're thinking. So, you have to come to know them, and give them space to be the musicians they are; and they have to come to know you as a conductor as well; and that's a fun challenge. It's a constant source of fascination for me – how orchestras play; the confluence of talent and brain activity, imagination, and creativity; what happens on that stage is daunting when you think about it – and I'm always amazed at what they do.

NG:  Well, I certainly get the sense of gratitude you have, and how fortunate you feel to have these two orchestras that you deal with on a regular basis; as well as making new friends with your guest orchestras – and getting to discover new works, or forgotten gems at the same time; it really is a great privilege to be a prominent conductor.

JF:  It sure is – thank you.

NG:  I started our conversation by noting what a busy career you have; and not only with performing and recording, but also with many other duties including educational and mentoring tasks ­– such as the seminar you led for young women conductors last summer at the League of American Orchestras meeting in Chicago, and also in the realm of arts advocacy.  For example, you've got a seat on the National Council of the Arts, and you're very active in the local scenes in Buffalo and in Norfolk. 

The passion that you have on the subject of community involvement for arts leaders and the importance of advocating for the arts and arts education, and especially in these difficult economic times, comes out very clearly in your own essays, which I've enjoyed reading.  So, can you share with us some of your key principles in this regard – and especially, what a conductor or leading artist can and should be doing to improve the arts life around them?

JF:  Well, I believe very strongly that we exist in our communities to serve our communities; that we don't exist to make music for ourselves, or to be the largest orchestra in the state. We exist to serve our community, but to challenge them too – to bring them new ideas. And so, we have to form partnerships with them. I think that's such a great thing about life in the United States.  In Europe, the government supports much of the arts, and there's less involvement by people and by corporations. But in the United States, that's absolutely not true.  So, when the Virginia Symphony plays, the companies in Virginia – Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Williamsburg – they become vitally involved.  The individual donors who can help us, the education leaders, the local government ­– they are all part of what we do and who we are. 

And it takes a lot of time to create relationships with these people.  But then, the orchestra is actually knit into the fabric of life ­– it becomes a part of life just as are the schools or the libraries or the museums or the transportation systems; and that's the only way we can be relevant in our country.  When I was much younger, I used to think, “Oh, this is so difficult here, and it's much easier in Europe”; but I've completely changed my mind ­– because I now believe it's so much healthier to be involved with your community.

That’s what we've done in both situations, and the communities have responded; they know that this is their orchestra, they're vitally concerned with the health of the orchestra, they appreciate everything we do ­– whether it's playing for preschoolers, or holiday concerts, or pop concerts, or a Mahler symphony; they are very proud that they have the orchestra in their community. And I think that every conductor needs to recognize that this is who we are, and that there's something very American about it – something very egalitarian. We're not playing up in an ivory tower; we are playing to the people in our community.

And in Buffalo this is especially true, because it’s a city that is economically very challenged: we're the second poorest city in the country …

NG: Is that right?

JF:  Yes, our city is actually bankrupt; but the Buffalo Philharmonic still stands as a beacon of something special about Buffalo; and the community won't let go of that.

NG:  It's become essential.

JF: Exactly, it's become essential – to the quality of life.  Even to those people who may not go to a Buffalo Philharmonic concert – they know that we have an orchestra; they know it's important, and they're proud they have it in their community.  And that’s what we need to do: to become partners, and to make life better in our communities. Then we won't have to worry. You know, people always ask, “Oh, what's the future of music in our country?”  Well, if you ask me: it's vibrant, it's healthy, and it's wonderful, and it’s exciting – because we are important to the people of our community.

NG:  I think that if one were to look from the outside, and see the schedule of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and the great recordings that you are making, one would never imagine that this is a city in trouble. I believe that indeed you are showing that the arts themselves can become essential in helping a community rise above, and meet, its challenges; and it shows the power of art, the power of music – whether it's performing a world premier, a Brahms symphony, or a re-discovered work by Tyberg. It turns a bit on its head the notion that the sky is falling.

I was actually going to ask you, from your insider's view, if you're bullish or bearish on the future of art music in America, but now I clearly hear that indeed you are pretty bullish – that the message is getting through to the powers that be, and that we're going hopefully in the right direction.

JF:  I think that we absolutely are; that's not to say that we don't need to take a hard look at our organizations; we need to be sure that we're operating in a way that makes sense, and that there's no waste. We can't afford to waste one second of rehearsal, we can't afford to waste one audition; everything we do has to be well thought out and carefully planned.  So, this recession has forced us to focus on that.  How can we deliver the very best product in the most effective way?  And it's been good in that sense: we've had to make some decisions that have made us stronger. 

But the power of music, if anything, has grown stronger; it’s more important. It's a part of people’s lives that they're not willing to give up; so, I feel very encouraged.  That's not to say that we can ever rest on our laurels.  We're an organization – an institution – that has to stay relevant to the times. We're a beautiful museum in some ways, but also a mirror of who we are as a society; and that's what's so exciting about playing new music: we are reflecting what's happening ­– whether it's John Corigliano re-examining the poetry of Bob Dylan, or Eric Ewazen creating a new percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie; that's part of our orchestra life, and the audience is growing.  The happiest thing I've seen over the last ten years is how much more open the American public has gotten to new music.  They welcome it now; they're intrigued by it.  I remember when I first started my career, there was generally a feeling of “Oh, there's a new piece on the program, I don't know, maybe we won't go to this one.” 

NG:  And it was generally programmed first in the concert, because the conductors or administrators were afraid that if they put it as the final piece in the program, the audience would evaporate.

JF:  I know; it's not that way anymore. Now people are saying, “Hey, it's a new piece, the set looks interesting; let's go hear about it,” and they talk about it.  That's not to say they always love it at first hearing; but they talk about it, and it influences how they feel about everything they hear.  And most importantly, they realize that the orchestra is not just a museum – it's a living, breathing, developing, changing organization; and they are part of it, and it's a big thrill to be involved in that.

NG:  It's almost as if Copland's dictum – that America will only be a true arts culture when the modern composer is recognized as a valuable asset – is finally coming to pass.

JF:  You're right; that's always been one of my favorite quotes, and it's absolutely true.  The artists among us, the composers among us, are such a force for change in our community, and I think that we're recognizing that; and I'm very happy to see that excitement about new music.  It’s also given a better opportunity for composers who want to communicate with their audiences; they are no longer off in their studio writing in a vacuum. They are communicating; not Tchaikovsky-like communication, but writing in their voice, and reaching their audiences in a powerful way. It’s been in the last twenty years that composers have really made a sea change – they’re writing music for people in today’s language; and that's made an enormous difference.

NG:  Certainly, it's changed from the days of Milton Babbitt, and as we’ve discussed, John Corigliano can be seen as one of the tide changers.

JF:  Yes, he was very courageous to say, “This is my voice, and I'm writing for the people I know, the American community that I know, and without apologies”; and good for him, because it wasn't always easy. It was much more difficult 25 or 30 years ago, but today composers have the courage of their own convictions, and we are now reaching our audience – thank goodness.

NG: Well, I have one last, and very serious, question for you, JoAnn:  I saw that CNN segment by [satirical commentator] Jeanne Moos, on the moment when President George W. Bush grabbed the baton and conducted “Stars and Stripes Forever” with your Virginia Symphony. What was that like?

JF:  [laughs] It was a total surprise!

NG:  So, being in Norfolk, not too far from Washington D.C., is a visit from the Commander-in-Chief part of your regular routine?  And if so, the next question is: when is President Obama going to come and conduct the symphony?

JF:  [laughs] We would welcome him!  In fact, our musicians too have said, “If President Bush can conduct us, now let's have President Obama” – but so far, no luck in getting him down there.  But that was a very fun moment, a very unexpected moment, in our history – when we were celebrating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown; really the beginning of our country, right near us, in Virginia. So, to have President Bush there, to have him all of the sudden decide, on the spur of the moment, to want to conduct our orchestra, was a big thrill; it was a lot of fun.

NG:  Yes, it must have been surreal.

JF:  It was! 

NG:  Well, I'll put out my good thoughts, and I’m sure our readers will put out theirs, that the current Commander-in-Chief will take note, and show his love of music as well.

JF: Well, thank you so much.  This was a lot of fun.


 
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