A conductor's life in allegro

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN the past few years, JoAnn Falletta has emerged as one of the nation's most gifted young conductors. Right now she is juggling three orchestra jobs, which she admits takes some fine tuning in the planning and scheduling department.

In 1983 she was chosen from 150 candidates to conduct the Denver Chamber Orchestra. Later this summer she will become associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

And she conducts a short season of the Queens Philharmonic in New York City, where she is a doctoral candidate in orchestral conducting at the Juilliard School. As a classical guitarist and mandolinist, she also performs with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

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Yet Miss Falletta remains pleasantly and positively unflappable, and she is sure of her future in conducting despite the fact that only a handful of women are in the field.

``Many people still cannot seem to make the conceptual plunge of accepting a woman in the role of conductor,'' she explains calmly. ``Audiences, once they get over the initial surprise, respond very well. Younger people don't find it so difficult at all. But some older players are used to the old dictatorial, tyrannical type of conductor, which I am not. I feel that conducting styles have changed and that conductors no longer feel the need to throw Toscanini-like temper tantrums and fire musicians on th e spot. I think musicians should be protected and never at the mercy of one person.''

Still, she adds, ``it is a position of ultimate authority, and as conductor you have to make decisions and then assume responsibility for them. I don't let the problems of being a woman conductor loom large in my mind. I have avoided bitterness or anger by letting nothing stand in the way of the music, and by simply concentrating on doing the best I can and expecting people to accept me on that basis.''

Miss Falletta recently received one of the 1985 Young Achiever awards given by the National Council of Women of the United States, an award that cited her skill and training as well as her ``sensitivity, persuasiveness, and authority.'' Earlier this spring she became the first woman to win first prize at the annual Leopold Stokowski Conducting Competition, and she led the American Symphony Orchestra in her Carnegie Hall debut last spring.

She laughs at the adage that every conductor needs two good friends -- a good barber and a good tailor -- and agrees that, after their own fashion, women conductors require the same.

``When people ask me what standard dress is for a female conductor, I tell them it hasn't evolved yet. I have worn everything from tails to black skirts and white blouses. Right now I prefer the tux -- a cutaway with trousers -- because it allows maximum freedom of movement.''

Miss Falletta started studying the classical guitar at age 7 and determined at 12 to become a conductor because she was so fascinated by the symphonic repertoire. ``I wanted to participate in it in a way that would allow me to create and shape the performance. I had no idea what schooling was involved or how difficult it would be to attain that goal. But I was determined to do it.''

Piano and cello were added to her private lesson schedule in high school, and when she enrolled at the Mannes College of Music in New York, she elected a double major, conducting and classical guitar.

The master's and doctoral programs at Juilliard have involved her in a very intense program of study. ``There is much that one has to be master of in order to be a conductor,'' she explains, ``so the study itself requires an enormous amount of commitment. There is no way to be halfway about it.'' She has finished the course work and is now writing her thesis.

``Playing guitar in chamber music trios, quartets, and quintets,'' says Miss Falletta, ``gave me superb training for conducting, because the player has to listen so carefully, be flexible, and respond quickly. I find the guitar can be such a personal expression of myself, a nice contrast from the symphony orchestra, which is so large and involves so many different complex things.''

About her programming she says, ``Having been in Denver for two years now, I know what people in the community want, what they will accept, what they will put up with, and what they simply will not stand for. I have found that if programming is done in the right way, new music can be presented in a way that is acceptable and enjoyable. I do not agree that something new or educational must be forced upon audiences because you think they need to learn. I find that most people are excited by something new if they can be brought into the experience.''

Miss Falletta does that by inviting composers of new works to come and talk with the audiences. She writes extensive program notes that are explanatory and suited to people who may be hearing a piece for the first time. And she does preconcert lectures three days before each performance, explaining to people exactly what they are going to hear, what to expect and listen for, and how and why she chose the particular program.

``I share with these open-to-the-community lecture audiences what I am thinking about the pieces,'' she says. ``Of course, I continue to program the well-loved favorites, because everyone likes to go to a concert and hear a piece that is like an old friend. Familiarity is a very valuable thing, and it comes only with hearing things many times. So I always mix new and modern pieces with those loved classics. My primary goal is that people enjoy themselves.

``As for composers, I always love Mozart, of course, but I convince myself that every piece I am conducting is, for that moment in time, the greatest of them all, and I give it my all.''

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