A crowd of well more than 100 packed themselves in the Fireplace Room of the James Prendergast Library Tuesday evening, to hear JoAnn Falletta discuss her career as one of the foremost orchestra conductors in the world.
Falletta was offering the ninth annual lecture in the Murray L. Bob Memorial Lectureship. The lectureship was created to honor the late leader who was director of both the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System and the James Prendergast Library, for many years. His widow introduced the speaker.
Tiny in size, Falletta has made giant footprints in the world of symphony orchestras. She was the first woman ever to conduct a major U.S. orchestra, the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in conducting, etc. More important, she has rejuvenated and advanced many orchestras, most recently of the Buffalo Philharmonic.
She is also the music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra, in Ireland, and she is chief conductor of several more orchestras in the U.S., and abroad, and a frequent guest conductor all over the world.
Before her arrival in Buffalo, the orchestra was reducing its concert season, dealing with labor disputes and was fighting reductions in funding from various sources. Today, the orchestra is often held up as an example of a fiscally healthy organization which has partnered with its home city and won the hearts of the majority of its citizens. Last spring, when the BPO won a competition for the right to perform on the stage of New York City's Carnegie Hall, they were told that more members of their home audience had traveled to New York to support their orchestra than for any other orchestra in the history of the competition.
She began with a history of the role of conductors, sharing a curious story that the first known conductor of an orchestra was Jean-Baptiste Lully, who tried to keep a ballet orchestra playing together by pounding on the floor with a staff, until he accidentally pounded on his own foot, developed gangrene, and died.
She reminded her audience that the conductor is the only person on the stage of a symphony concert who never makes a single beautiful sound. She went on to say that the image of a conductor is one of forging the wills of more than 100 musicians into a performance which matches the conductor's own idea of the performance.
Instead, she continued, her vision is that it is her role to do her best to respect that each musician in her orchestra is one of the finest musicians in the world, and to encourage each of them to find the perfect role for his instrument within the music being performed.
The conductor expressed her gratitude that unlike an athletic coach, a conductor is most successful, not when someone loses so that he or she can win, but when musicians and audience have achieved agreement and pride in a superlative accomplishment. ''The difference between how you feel when you arrive at 8 p.m. and how you feel when you leave at 10 p.m. in the measure of our success,'' she said.
She expressed gratitude to her audiences, who usually only get one hearing of her orchestras' performances. ''While the musicians and I hear the rehearsals and get to look at the printed music and to hear what the composer has created, over and over, the audience just hears it once, and either absorbs and loves it, or they don't,'' she said.
Ending with questions from the audience, she was asked how a conductor interacts with a guest soloist, whom she typically has never met before. She said that normally, a soloist arrives in the city on a Wednesday. On Friday morning she sits down with them and they discuss such things as tempo, dynamics, etc. That afternoon, they rehearse together for the first time, and that weekend, they have their performance.
''I rarely have a soloist who doesn't teach me something about music, and I rarely have a soloist who leaves town without mentioning that he or she has learned something new about a piece of music which they might have performed multiple times,'' she said.
The lecture was ended by the fact that the library's closing time had arrived, whereupon the lecturer was surrounded by the majority of the audience, asking more questions, seeking autographs, and commenting on elements of music on which they wanted her opinion.