Albany Symphony Orchestra brings back a special conductor for a special evening of music

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ALBANY, N.Y. — For Friday's Valentine's Day concert at Proctors in Schenectady, Albany Symphony Orchestra music director David Alan Miller is passing the baton to returning guest conductor — and former classmate — JoAnn Falletta.

Grammy-winning Buffalo Philharmonic music director of 20 years Falletta enjoys a busy schedule leading orchestras around the world, from Los Angeles to Lisbon, Brazil to Beijing.

One of a growing number of female conductors, her appearance continues ASO's season-long focus on phenomenal women in music.

Falletta has led the ASO on a handful of occasions. "They're an adventurous and risk taking orchestra, I always love the experience," she said by phone from Buffalo. "David and I were in the same Juilliard class in the late 1980s, and we've remained friends all these years."

Two pieces in the suitably romantic program "highlight love between couples," Falletta noted. Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suite is "one of the greatest expressions of [love]," while Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane Suite is "beautifully French, highly colored, subtle but also a bit wild and celebratory."

English composer and suffragist Dame Ethel Smyth's Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra continues ASO's centennial commemoration of Women's Right To Vote.

"She's a woman of great musical gifts and also an activist," Falletta said. "She's on the program because of my love of women composers and David's wonderful tribute."

The soloists are ASO concertmaster Jill Levy and Buffalo principal horn Jacek Muzyk, "to show the friendship between the two orchestras, Falletta said.

A distinguished Victorian composer, Smyth studied in Europe and met Clara Schumann, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

"She was a tremendous suffragist, unstoppable to the point where she was imprisoned," Falletta said. Fellow conductor Sir Thomas Beecham reported seeing her conduct suffragists in defiant song through her cell window with a toothbrush.

Living well into the 20th century, Smyth's music "stays solidly in the Romantic Period," Falletta said. "She wasn't interested in breaking rules [like] Stravinsky or Schoenberg. Many composers of that time were pastoral, but Smyth is more highly structured in the German style."

Falletta studied women composers while leading San Francisco's all-female Women's Philharmonic from 1986 to 1997.

"They only played music by women, which meant a great deal of contemporary music. That's where I met composers like Joan Tower and Libby Larson for the first time, and also women of the past," Falletta said. "Those 10 years were defining for me, a voyage of discovery — there's so much great music people don't know about."

Falletta's conducting journey began in childhood when her father gave her a guitar, an instrument she later played professionally. Recognizing early musical interest, her parents took her to Carnegie Hall orchestral concerts.

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At age 11, she saw Leopold Stokowski conduct the American Symphony in Beethoven's Sixth. "I was so overwhelmed I told my parents I wanted to be a conductor. I loved the idea of all these people making music together, and one person enabling them to do that," Falletta said.

She began studying conducting at 18 at Mannes College, followed by Juilliard.

"It was still something very unusual," she explained. "I'm grateful both my schools believed it a possibility — 10 years earlier it might not have been.

"If you couldn't be trained and have professional contacts or experience on a very high level, there was no chance of having an orchestral conducting career."

Fortunately Juilliard teacher Jorge Mester didn't consider it a barrier. In the 1980s, women were opening doors in other professions all over the country, Falletta noted.

"But it's taken a very long time for it to open up in a big way."

Smaller orchestras offered early conducting opportunities, and larger orchestras soon followed.

"The big step was when I began to get European engagements," said Falletta, who led Northern Ireland's Ulster Orchestra and regularly travels to Sweden, Spain and Germany, as well as South America and the Far East.

"It's a great learning experience, because every orchestra is different, every community is different."

But musicians are the same everywhere. "They struggle over the same difficult passages, smile at the same moments. There's something so human about music that transcends all language and cultural barriers," she said

Her early idol Stokowski broke the barrier of conductors talking to the audience.

"Now we do that all the time, especially if it's a new piece," Falletta said. "And why not? We're dealing with [an audience of] very intelligent people who simply want to know more about that art form."

While Miller programs a guest conductor every season — it gives the orchestra a different perspective, he says — seeing his former classmate from the opposite end of the state is always a highlight.

"She's a wonderful colleague, a mature, steady, beautiful leader that orchestras love playing for. It's a great treat to hear such a masterful artist at work with our orchestra," he said.

"She's a phenomenal conductor regardless of gender, and a breakthrough woman, one of the first to have that kind of major international career. That's a tribute to her great musicianship."


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