A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Aug 14, 2013
09:17 AM
Classically Speaking

JoAnn Falletta Brings a Strong Resume (and Madison Memories) to Door County

JoAnn Falletta Brings a Strong Resume (and Madison Memories) to Door County

Photo courtesy of Enid Bloch

JoAnn Falletta

When I first heard JoAnn Falletta with the Long Beach Symphony in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t a question of whether she would “make it” as a conductor, but rather just how far she would go. Nearly twenty years later the answer is: about as far as anyone can.

Just before my move to Madison in 2001, Falletta was named director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and she has managed to make them a significant force, largely through a series of critically acclaimed and award-winning CDs.

Falletta makes her Peninsula Music Festival debut next week in Fish Creek, and I learned just in the past couple of months that she has some interesting Madison connections. The quotes from her below are from a recent email exchange.

Doing some homework in advance of John DeMain’s twentieth anniversary season with the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera, I discovered that Falletta guest conducted the MSO during DeMain’s first year here. I wondered if she had made any other appearances in Madison, and what her impressions of the city were.

“I have only conducted the Madison Symphony once, and was very impressed by their musicianship. I did spend some really lovely times in Madison during my tenure as associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony (1985-88). It is a gorgeous city and filled with vitality, intelligence and great spirit.”

But Falletta forged a more enduring link to Madison’s musical life. When Madison Opera commissioned and gave the world premiere of Daron Hagen’s Shining Brow, the company attracted a great deal of deserved attention and praise. Yet I suspect not everyone realizes that the work was eventually recorded—by Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, in a live performance from 2006. Wondering what her connection to the work was, it turned out that she has close ties to the composer.

“I have been a big fan of Daron Hagen’s for years (we were students at Juilliard together), and have conducted a number of his works with great pleasure. I fell in love with Shining Brow and brought it to Buffalo. I feel it is one of the most important contemporary operas, and absolutely beautiful.”

A number of critics agreed, and gave the Naxos CDs, including Faletta’s leading of the Buffalo Philharmonic, near-rave reviews.

Her catalog for Naxos, mostly with the ensemble in Buffalo, has become quite extensive (with ten Grammy nominations and two awards), and I decided to sample a few more—specifically the ones Falletta felt most strongly about.

The first was a stunning surprise, a disc of music by John Corigliano, featuring “Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan.” The composer maintains that he was completely unfamiliar with Dylan’s own settings—and kept it that way. For anyone who has heard even the title track (so to speak), or “Blowin’ in the Wind,” it is an utterly unexpected experience. But even more moving for me were “Masters of War” and “Clothes Line.”

Falletta also is fond of a Duke Ellington recording that captures tone poems (“Harlem”) and suites such as “The River” and “Black, Brown and Beige,” and it delivers performances of authentic musical dialect and a full palette of orchestral colors. I was more excited to hear a disc of works by Josef Suk, anchored by his “Fairy Tales,” which I’d heard for the first time only recently. Think of Scheherazade, a little less boisterous but equally lush. Here the Buffalo Philharmonic displays a sound that can only be described as sleek, and they spin this seductive sound into an inescapable web of delight.

Just released is a new disc of Gershwin…yes, another "Rhapsody in Blue." It’s full of snap, sass and energy, and the release is filled out “Catfish Row,” the orchestral suite based on Porgy and Bess. The Buffalo Philharmonic is able to slip into that unique musical idiom of Gershwin’s still irresistible mix of symphonic jazz and deliver it with polish. Clearly Falletta shares one trait with DeMain: They both have established credentials as masterful orchestra builders.

So Falletta launches the third and final week of the Peninsula Music Festival, and I can't wait to hear what she brings to her program of Bizet, Ravel, Bruch and Fauré. I’ll be sure to let you know.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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