Most cognoscenti regard JoAnn Falletta as the consummate music director. At the helm of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999 and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra since 1991, Falletta has earned critical acclaim for her multitudinous recordings, and for the more than 100 world premieres she has presented in auditoriums around the globe. In Hawai‘i, seven years into her role as artistic advisor of the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, the charismatic conductor is increasingly regarded by kama‘āina as a cultural asset, and a leader capable of bestowing the orchestra with international cachet.
Dividing her time between Norfolk, Virginia, and Buffalo, New York, Falletta also spends about three weeks a year in Honolulu. For the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, she chooses repertory for the classical concerts, engages soloists and conductors, determines tenured positions, and oversees auditions.
Amid this expansive musical life, the New York-born artist remains consumed by another lifelong passion: writing. Particularly, poetry. In a professional capacity, she has written about audience enrichment, music education, music directorship, and the art of listening. But as memoirist and musicologist, she has produced a pink hardcover book of delicious, inspiring, silly, and even sad verse called Love Letters to Music. The poems inside reflect her impressions—sometimes madcap, sometimes intensely personal—of music, musicians, and memorable concert dates.
In “Guitar,” she recounts a lonely childhood dominated by shyness, until her beloved father gives her a guitar on her seventh birthday. She writes: “That dented case became the sailing vessel to / some island sanctuary / the touch of that firm dry fingerboard / the dusty wooden smell that clung to her / fingers slipping over knobby frets in every / cherished exercise / Each one with its own secret childhood name.”
The orchestra leader registers her heartbreak in “After My Mother Died,” in which she recollects mourning a mother who died too soon. “Into that silence / they played Brahms for me / and that undulating e minor / wrapped itself around me / holding me tightly in a tapestry of strings and winds and horns / pulsing and pressing against me.”
Veering from the personal into a lighter vein, Falletta comically describes discord between the conductor and a soloist in “Concerto,” a spoof redolent of the late, zany Danish entertainer Victor Borge. An excerpt:
The soloist was looking distinctly unwell
Glistening in a sheen of perspiration,
he gasped at me
“I don’t know why we do this, JoAnn.”
I didn’t know why either;
I was not feeling very well myself.
But I knew why that was, at least–
it was him.
I figured I had about even chances
of catching him after the cadenza
very little hope of following the first tempo transition
and—if I could race ahead of him in
the last sixteen bars—
well maybe–just maybe—the final chords
would be together……..
Falletta plans to do more writing, but she’s alert to an element of cynicism entering her prose. It stems from her worries about the state of the arts in an increasingly alienated world. “It would be sad if poetry readings or chamber music recitals were to disappear or be felt as superfluous. These are precious things,” she says at Halekulani, after leading the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “When we see arts struggle, and people getting caught up in other things that do not matter as much, I get worried. I do not want them to hear a Schumann symphony, the Rhenish, and not be able to feel the Rhine River flowing through as they listen. I want to be able to hold onto that.”
As is the case with most American orchestras, the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra continues to experiment, in an effort to keep the ear of younger audiences and garner donor dollars. With an annual budget of around $4.2 million, and an endowment of around $12 million, the orchestra schedules 12 classical Masterworks programs, which are sponsored by Halekulani, as well as six pops concerts, each season. Under the guidance of executive director Jonathan Parrish, the orchestra has also introduced “Music That Rocks,” a series of surefire productions in which the 84-piece symphony orchestra accompanies lead singers and bands in tributes to headliners such as Queen, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Led Zeppelin.
In December 2017, Falletta and the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra also performed selections from such noted composers as Tchaikovsky and John Williams before capacity crowds at Salt, a mixed-use retail complex in Kaka‘ako. Days later, she returned to the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall to lead the orchestra in the world-premiere of Southern Scenes, a concerto scored for flute and pipa by Chinese-born American composer Chen Yi, a longtime friend and colleague.
“I said the premiere must be in Hawai‘i because of the connection between Asian sensibility and a Western orchestra,” Falletta explains. “The landscape of Hawai‘i has such a rich Chinese heritage, and it’s just wonderful that [Chen Yi] has the first performance with our orchestra.”
Falletta is in demand as a guest conductor. In May 2018, she will journey to Tokyo to lead the New Japan Philharmonic. The program will feature Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, performed with pianist Yōsuke Yamashita.
It’s not uncommon for orchestras abroad to request American compositions. “Many orchestras love the swagger of American music, they take it so seriously,” Falletta says. “When I grew up, we felt in the arts that Americans didn’t get it. If you had violinists or pianists from Germany or Vienna, it was the real deal. At some point, though, we realized we have a different personality and work differently. We have that profound understanding of music, and an incredible imagination about music.”
JoAnn Falletta conducts a rehearsal for the world premiere of Southern Scenes by composer Chen Yi at Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall.
In December 2017, Falletta led the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra in the world-premiere of Southern Seas, a concerto scored for flute and pipa by Chinese-born American composer Chen Yi, shown here.
With more than 100 world premieres to her name, Falletta is among the world’s most acclaimed and in-demand conductors.
Amid a noted musical career, Falletta remains consumed by a lifelong passion for writing, and her poems can be found in Love Letters to Music.
Music in America
By Joann Falletta
So what do they think of these Americans?
These deal-makers, these handshakers
who talk too loudly who smile too quickly
who laugh too often.
And what of our musicians?
those canny sight-readers
those watchers of clocks
those unionized technicians with their slick
whipcrack powerhouse chords
who crunch up rhythms like popcorn
and play too loudly and think too quickly
and work too much.
A practical people.
Under the calloused fingers and the sinewy bows
and the steely embouchures beats
the heart of a poet
the imagination of the child
the dreamer in disguise.
And how will they remember us?
not by the skyscrapers or the monuments or the
deals or the unions or the clocks.
But by the young boy in blue jeans on the subway
scribbling on a scrap of manuscript
the voice of the dream.
By Joann Falletta
That guitar may not look like much
But it save the life of a little girl.
Battered in its cardboard case
Six plunky strings
that never seemed to stay in tune.
Well, it didn’t cost much, that’s for sure
But that didn’t make a difference to that girl.
Afraid of school
Afraid of stores and summer camp and people
Afraid of nuns and recess and birthday parties
Plain and friendless
And knowing it all too well.
That dented case became the sailing vessel to
some island sanctuary
the touch of that firm dry fingerboard
the dusty wooden smell that clung to her
fingers slipping over knobby frets in every
Each one with its own secret childhood name.
That little girl played through those fears
Year after year of uncertainty and awkwardness and confusion.
Of loneliness and tongue-tied anguish
Of timid overtures and paralyzing shyness.
Played through days and weeks and years of life.
That little girl is forty-seven now.
She tells people what to do.
She gives speeches.
She makes decisions.
She circulates at parties.
The guitar stays in the closet, mostly.
But she hasn’t changed so much.
She’s still afraid of all those things, deep inside
And sometimes, when she’s alone
She touches that fingerboard
and remembers and loves
that guitar that saved the life of a little girl.