Internationally celebrated conductor to speak in Jamestown

Has it ever occurred to you what a miracle takes place whenever an orchestra plays well?

Have you tried with a friend, to do exactly the same actions at exactly the same time? Imagine the difficulty of getting more than 100 musicians to play the same piece of music at exactly the same time, in exactly the same way. Meanwhile, the printed music may be demanding that some of them play very rapidly and high in pitch, while others may be playing slowly and at low pitch.

Unlike the steering wheel and brakes of an automobile, the conductor of an orchestra has no buttons or pedals which force any of the members of an orchestra to do something. Therefore, the musical director must present a combination of persuasion, demonstration, and perhaps even threats – If you don’t play as I ask, you’re fired – to convince all the individuals in the orchestra that they may want to play louder, or faster, or with whatever tone quality they have chosen, and yet they must not do it, or the effect of the music is spoiled. At the same time, they must not perform the music with robot-like precision which can result in an utterly lifeless performance.

One of the most prominent and respected music directors in the world, will be in Jamestown on Tuesday to deliver the ninth annual Murray L. Bob lecture, at the James Prendergast Library, on Cherry Street, in the city. There is no charge for hearing the lecture, but seating will be on a first-come, first served basis.

JoAnn Falletta is best known by us as the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. While serving in Buffalo, she also serves as the music director of the Virginia Symphony, the principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the principal guest conductor of the Phoenix Symphony, in Arizona, and the principal guest conductor at the Brevard Music Center, in North Carolina.

She has been the artistic advisor of the Honolulu Symphony, music director of the Long Beach Symphony, associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the Denver Chamber Orchestra, the Queens Philharmonic, and the Women’s Philharmonic. She has served as guest conductor for more than 100 U.S. orchestras, and a great many in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. That is an astonishing record of how profoundly she is admired by the world’s top professional musicians. In all of those situations, she demonstrates to top professionals that she knows what to do and how to do it, and she convinces every one of them to do what she asks of him.

In this week’s column, I’d like to tell you just a hint of what is expected of a music director, followed by some information about Ms. Falletta, and then a brief history of the Murray L. Bob Lecture Series, which has invited her to speak in Jamestown.

MUSIC DIRECTORS

One of the major duties of a music director is conducting the orchestra. That means that he or she decides at what tempo a piece of music will be performed. Some composers – not all – give very specific instructions of at what speed they want their music to be performed, but whether those instructions are followed or not, is the decision of the conductor.

Remember that concert stages are very large. A viola player, sitting directly in front of a trumpeter, hears the trumpet’s note a second or more earlier than a violinist on the far side of the stage hears it. Therefore, it is important that every musician in the orchestra plays the notes his sheet music calls for, the instant the conductor asks for them, not when it sounds correct in his own ears, to play it.

The ultimate decision of whether the cellos or the trombones should stand out of the orchestral mix is the conductor’s. That is why the conductor needs to study the huge score which the composer has written, so carefully that he or she knows exactly what signals to give the musicians, well enough in advance that the musicians have the split second needed to do what they have been asked to do.

The way in which a conductor uses his baton can be very useful to the listener, as he or she tries to recognize the structure and the possible messages of the music, while it passes by him in complex form, often at a great rate of speed. I know some audience members believe that a conductor only keeps time, so the musicians stay at the same tempo, but I’m afraid that is generally naive.

The conductor cannot just point at a musician and tell him to play faster, or louder. He needs to establish a relationship of trust, so that the musician will sacrifice his own point of view so that his sounds fit correctly into the orchestral sound.

I often advise readers who desire to understand elements of the arts to sit down at a computer or a typewriter and to type a full page of words. Now, go back and check it. If there are not a few places in which you have written the wrong letter, or held your finger on the capital shift one instant too long, or failed to hit one of the letters in your words, you will be a very gifted typist, indeed. Every musical part has a printed score which tells musicians playing that part what to play. It is not at all unusual that in printing all those very different parts, the publisher has made minor errors. The conductor needs to listen to all the musicians playing together, and to hear that the clarinets are playing an E-flat, and their printed music calls for that E-flat, and to recognize that the music requires an E-natural.

If you pick one chord from a given symphony, a flutist may see his note from that chord, printed on page 12, while a percussionist may see his note from that chord, printed on page 4 of his score. This is why each musician’s part has either numbers or letters printed at the exactly correct performance space. If the conductor said, “Let’s start on page 9,” he may have different musicians playing at 40 different places in the music. That’s why you’ll hear him saying “Let’s start two measures before letter G,” for example.

All of this merely points out some of the duties of a conductor, and they are many, and require much knowledge, and much study. A music director not only conducts, he or she also chooses what works will be performed in the coming season by the organization which he heads, from the millions of works of music which have been composed, throughout the years. He decides which musicians are hired, when a vacancy takes place, and which will be ranked first, or second, or 10th, among the musicians who play his same musical part, which makes a difference in prestige and often in pay.

Generally he must interact sensitively with major donors and with members of the board of trustees who are his employers. If he doesn’t seem to know more about the music than they do, they will think they need someone better educated in his job, but if he makes them feel uneducated or unworthy of their position, they may turn against him and withhold donations or refuse to renew his contract, when it is up.

The music director must look at the year’s calendar and be able to know if he will be available on the announced dates to conduct his orchestra. Nearly every orchestra in the world has occasional guest conductors, who are normally chosen by the music director. He must know what special talents each possible guest will bring to his performances. He must have a sense of how much money each potential guest will expect to be paid, and be able to divide up his budget to get the best possible season for his orchestra and their listeners.

Heading up orchestras, like nearly every other possible job, has been largely a man’s job for centuries. Even with Falletta’s degree of fame and accomplishment, there are times when the music director of an orchestra will decide that his musicians won’t accept the orders of a woman conductor, or he will decide that he only needs to pay her a fraction of what he would pay a male colleague, because she is “only a woman.”

Women often need to spend more time and money on having their hair fixed, for example, and on their wardrobe. While a male conductor can probably meet virtually all of his obligations with a set of tails, a tuxedo, and a couple of dark suits, women need to deal with questions of skirt or pants or dress, long or short, fit, degree of formality, etc. Fortunately, the one thing which is pretty universal, her outfit should be black. Pretty soloists wear brightly colored gowns. Conductors wear black, or perhaps black and white.

Now obviously I’m just skating over the top of this subject, and some of you may not have learned anything new, but non-musicians among our readers might not know any of this.

JOANN FALLETTA

JoAnn Falletta was born in Queens. Since that borough of New York City is only a few minutes’ subway ride away from the big concert halls and minor performance spots of Manhattan, she was taken to performances by her parents, from her very early youth.

She now reports that she decided at the age of 10 that she wanted to conduct orchestras, but even in graduate school, she encountered teachers and administrators who believed that a woman couldn’t conduct an orchestra, so it would be a waste to allow her to study in the programs of the various music schools and conservatories.

Obviously, a young musician, however talented, doesn’t just walk in off the street and start conducting an orchestra. It was necessary to establish herself as a musician first. She studied guitar and mandolin, and became so accomplished that she was hired while still in her teens, by such prestigious orchestras as that of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic to perform as a soloist on those instruments.

In 1972, she got grudging permission from the Mannes School of Music to begin studying conducting, although many in their administration and faculty believed a male musician would never accept instructions from a woman conductor.

By 1989, she had become the first woman ever to have earned a Ph.D. degree in conducting. In 1998, she was named music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, which made her the first woman to be given the reins of one of our nation’s major symphony orchestras. Earlier women of note, such as Sarah Caldwell and Eve Queler had conducted opera, with occasional guest conducting roles with full orchestras.

Since starting at the BPO, she has made herself the darling of the critical press in the area, who find her easy to speak with, pleasant to interview, and always both intelligent and very informative. She has encouraged the orchestra to do more than just play, taking them to recording sessions for many Grammy-winning recordings, touring them around the country and the world, whether at a branch library in a Buffalo suburb, or at famed Carnegie Hall, where she wowed the New York critics with both her style and the musicianship which she has assembled, under her baton.

She has introduced her Western New York audiences to the music of young composers, and to the talents of a great range of performing musicians, and many of them now like those things, where they once preferred to stick to Beethoven and Brahms, and nothing more.

I know it’s easy to get caught up in her being the first woman to do this and that, and that is important, but more important is the fact that she inspired a talented orchestra which is miles from the main cities and performing halls, to compete very well with any orchestra in the world. I have always left her concerts at Kleinhans Music Hall with the word “wow” playing in my mind.

I can’t wait to learn what she will have to say on Tuesday evening. I hope folks will turn out by the hundreds to share it.

THE BOB LECTURES

Murray L. Bob was the first director of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System, and also was director of the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown. Not only was he a sensitive maker of policies, he was an effective leader who was able to get folks with diverse levels of skill and innovation to work together cheerfully. The system and the local library were works of art in his hands. Visitors from around the world have been deeply impressed by what is there, and what has been accomplished.

Bob was an example, as well as a leader. He read constantly, and encouraged his staff to do so as well, since it is difficult to assist people to choose and to understand reading material if one has not read oneself. He had opinion pieces published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and in other major journals, and he published a number of original books.

When he died, those who loved him created a fund at the Jamestown library which each year brings a high quality speaker to town, to add to our community’s grasp of the larger world, beyond our area. He was neither the cheapest nor the most trendy, but he was certainly the best.

JoAnn Falletta’s remarks on Tuesday will be the ninth annual Bob Lecture.