JoAnn Falletta wasn’t discouraged from pursuing a career as an orchestra conductor. But neither was the New York City native encouraged.
Today, the two-time Grammy Award winner, who has conducted over 100 top orchestras throughout the world including the Grand Rapids Symphony, is one of the most important women on the podium.
The music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic returns to DeVos Hall this week to lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in an orchestra suite from Richard Strauss’ operatic comedy, Der Rosenkavalier and Maurice Ravel’s enchanting La Valse.
Falletta is excited to do both of the works that she’s recorded previously with the Buffalo Philharmonic.
“They’re among my Top 10 favorites pieces,” she said.
Pianist Fabio Bidini, a finalist from the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, will be soloist on Friday and Saturday, March 24-25, in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, substituting for the previously announced Piano Concerto No. 5 of Camille Saint-Saens.
Falletta and Bidini have performed together many times, including past performances of the jazzy piano concerto that Ravel wrote after his first visit to New Orleans and New York City, where he met George Gershwin.
“Music is a small world. We seem to know everyone in the business, but Fabio is one of my great favorites,” she said.
Rounding out the concerts in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series is Scherzo Crypto by Alexander Miller, assistant principal oboist of the Grand Rapids Symphony, who was commissioned to compose the piece by the San Antonio Symphony.
“He sent it to me a while ago, and I really liked it,” Falletta said. “Absolutely I wanted to do it. The chance to do new music is so exciting.”
Falletta’s last appearance with the Grand Rapids Symphony was 13 years ago in a program including Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave).
“It’s been a long time,” Falletta recalled. “But I remember it was a fantastic orchestra and a wonderful experience.”
Falletta studied classical guitar as a child. But by the time she was 10 or 11 year’s old, she knew she wanted to become an orchestra conductor. Her teachers at Mannes School of Music weren’t so sure it was a good idea.
“They were honest and caring,” Falletta said. “They weren’t sure there was a possibility that a woman could have a career in conducting, and I really appreciated that and their concern.”
In the early 1970s, she was admitted to study guitar and offered an opportunity to sit in on conducting classes. After auditing classes and showing what she could do, Falletta was allowed to study conducting formally.
“I feel very lucky,” she said. “I came to conducting at the right time.”
Still, it took time to break down barriers. European orchestras especially were doubly skeptical of her, not only as a woman, but also as an American.
One of her heroes was Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director Catherine Comet, who served as Music Director from 1986 to 1997. The French-born conductor, trained at The Juilliard School, was the first woman to hold a post as music director of a regional, professional orchestra in the United States.
“She was an icon for me and for several women in the profession,” Falletta said. “There are so many admirers of her. She was an amazing pioneer.”
Another former Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director had an even bigger impact on her career. Semyon Bychkov, who served as Music Director from 1980 to 1985, was one of her conducting teachers at Mannes School of Music just before his appointment in Grand Rapids.
“He’s a force of nature,” Falletta said. “He’s really dramatic and fierce and volatile and so passionate about music. He always saw the drama and emotion in music.”
“He didn’t stay for long, but we all celebrated when he went to Grand Rapids,” she said.
Though it’s been 13 years since Falletta has been in DeVos Hall, she expects to recognize a few faces in the orchestra.
“For musicians, it’s a destination orchestra. People don’t want to leave,” she said. “Grand Rapids is a great place to stay.”