Conductor JoAnn Falletta
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Though not really a pioneer, JoAnn Falletta is one of a small
– but steadily growing – group of orchestral conductors who
happen to belong to the female gender.
She started out playing guitar, went to Juilliard and studied with
Jorge Mester, and also worked with Leonard Bernstein. All of
these credentials are somewhat typical of those who aspire to lead
virtuoso ensembles and imprint their ideas on recordings.
For more photos and details of her career, visit her website. And
harking back to her earliest musical experiences, a guitar competition has
been established in her name.
In the fall of 1996, Falletta was in suburban Chicago to conduct the
Lake Forest Symphony, and we arranged to meet for an interview.
She was enthusiastic about the upcoming concerts as well as the other
aspects of her career. Here is that conversation . . . . .
a bit about contemporary music. Is it really as difficult as we all
think to get contemporary music performed on concerts these days?
Well, I’ve made it for myself kind of a
mission to try and expand the orchestral repertoire a little bit
because, as you know, most conductors are faced with audiences that
pieces composed before the year 1900 and nothing after that. So
I’ve tried very hard to begin to introduce
20th century music and contemporary music from the later part of the
century into concert programs.
century music could be Debussy or
JF: For some
people, and that’s risky in some
places. But I want to include even later music of the living
American composers now. I’ve found that if one is very
careful about length and position in the program, that audiences are
intrigued and interested. You can build up a certain trust among
your audience base, which is what it’s all about. They may not
know the name Christopher Rouse or John Luther Adams but
they know that you are choosing carefully and interested in good music,
so they’ll take a chance and come.
they’ll take a chance on maybe 15 or 20
minutes but not a chance on two hours?
that’s right. I sometimes ask composers, “Would you prefer if
we could get a 15 minute piece of yours on a program with Beethoven and
Rachmaninov, or would it be better if we have evenings with two hours
contemporary music?” Most of them
prefer being on a mixed concert because it somehow indicates to the
audience that the orchestra is going forward. The
orchestra continues to develop. We’re enriching the
repertoire; we’re not ghettoizing a certain type of repertoire
that only those hardcore new-music fans will come to. I think
there’s certainly ways to do both, but I’ve found it most
interesting for myself to mix in contemporary music on programs with
very standard repertoire as well.
BD: When you
get a score that is either
very new or brand new and never been played, how do you decide if
you’re going to spend the time learning it and preparing it and
presenting it to the audience?
JF: Once the
word sort of gets out
that you are a person who’s interested in new music, you are deluged
with scores from everywhere. Weekly I get two or three scores
from composers, and the sad thing is that there are so
many incredibly gifted American composers who are really worth hearing
that I would never have enough concerts to program all this
music. So, it’s hard…
this is my question – what
makes it worth hearing?
JF: It is
worth hearing if I can get a sense that the music will
communicate something to the audience. Of course it is not
going to communicate in the language of Tchaikovsky; it’s not
going to be something that is going to be beautiful to listen to in the
19th century sense of ideal of beauty. But if I can sense that there is
an integrity and there is a desire to communicate with the public, that
is interesting to me. In the last five years especially, I’ve
noticed that composers seem to be also more interested in communicating
with the public. There was a period of time when composers didn’t
seem to find that a necessity. They wrote music that made sense
for them, whether it was mathematically or esoteric, whatever it was,
and if the audience liked it that was an
extra. But I think composers today are vitally interested in
whether the audience likes it. Maybe “likes”
is too strong a
word because it’s hard to like something on first
hearing; it depends whether the audience is interested in it, intrigued
by it, and would appreciate hearing it again, and that makes a
big difference. I find that audiences are responding to the
composer’s desire to reach them.
BD: Perhaps a
dangerous question – are there
some composers who are just pandering to this new taste?
JF: Yes, I
think that happens, too.
BD: So how do
you weed them out?
JF: There are
composers who get a little
bit gimmicky, I think, because in being gimmicky – or
having a cute idea
or a cute title or some sort of interesting premise – there’s
substance there, so it’s hard. And I’ll be honest with you, I
can’t say I’ve always been successful in my own mind in choosing the
best pieces. But I really try very hard to do some research into
the composer’s background, what he’s written before and where he is
now. With the Long Beach Symphony, we do a great deal of
commissioning in California, and that’s always very risky – as
can imagine – because you may look at a
composer’s work and like what
he’s done, commission him and then find that he’s just radically
changed styles into something else that you were not
interested in. That happens sometimes.
BD: But even
if he hasn’t really changed styles, is
it right to expect the composer to hit a home run each time?
JF: That’s it
too. I try and tell the audiences what we are doing is enabling
this composer to become a better composer. We’re
enabling our culture, the music of our country to become
strengthened. Could Beethoven have really written his
Ninth Symphony if he could
never get performances for the other
eight? I don’t think so. Composers tell me that
when they are actually in a situation where an orchestra is rehearsing
and performing their piece, they learned so much more about
what they want, about their own language, their own voice and what was
they calculated it to be. It’s a tremendous step forward for
them, and if we don’t perform American music, eventually we’re
not going to have a valid music at all in this country because
we’re not allowing composers to develop. It’s like any other art
form – it has to develop. No one is born a
and writes masterpieces at age 20 – except Mozart perhaps! They
get better and better, and as an American
conductor, I feel that’s part of my responsibility. It’s
actually a privilege, too, because to work with living American
composers, as an American you understand that language somehow.
And I think audiences do, too. It may be
very modern language, very dissonant, very atonal, whatever, but if
it’s written by someone who’s grown up in the United States and has had
basically the same experiences that many of us have had, there is
something in that we have in common with the language we hear.
There is something that makes sense to us at the core, and that’s
why I think it’s become easier to interest American audiences in
American music. They’re able to somehow respond to an
aspect of that music that touches them.
BD: You also
conduct in Europe. Do you try to take some of the best of the
American music to Europe with you?
do try, and I have to
tell you this is very frustrating in Europe because they almost always
ask for an American piece, but their idea of an
American piece is almost always An
American in Paris. This year alone I’m doing that piece in
Europe three or four
times. They love Copland and
Gershwin. That to them is the American sound, and the
delightful thing about doing it in Europe is that they take it
tremendously seriously. When I do An American in Paris with my
orchestras in United States, it’s like, “Oh, we’re doing this again,”
and we hardly rehearse it. In Europe, they
take it with the same seriousness they would play a Brahms
symphony. This is music that is very worthwhile and very exciting
to them. So it’s interesting to see them responding such a
serious way to it.
BD: Do you
think Gershwin would have been happy that
they took it so seriously?
JF: I don’t
think so. Part of the
problem is that they’re taking it so seriously it doesn’t have
the natural sound that an American orchestra can give it with even no
rehearsal. But it’s very
heartwarming to see the European orchestras enjoying this music, and
they do try to imitate an American inflection... but it does sound a
little bit unnatural. Sometimes I try and convince them to try
something different. Earlier this year, I promised to do An American in Paris with an
orchestra in Spain if they would let me do the Barber First Symphony
as well. They gave into that. I don’t think
they had a particular interest in the Barber, but I felt
they should understand that American music also has this aspect to
it and have a chance to experience that. It was a big
success. With another orchestra in Europe I brought John Adams’
Chairman Dances with a lot of trepidation not knowing how they’d
about it, and they loved it. They absolutely adored it.
BD: Of course
that’s music that really hits
JF: Yes, it
did, but I
didn’t know how Europeans would react to it. But, they loved it.
The orchestra enjoyed it and the audience was completely intrigued by
it. So there’s certainly a lot of room to bring American music to
Europe, but if we’re really going to help our country’s culture,
we have to do it here. We cannot expect Europeans to be looking for
BD: You also
conduct the standard
repertoire. From this huge array of pieces, how do you decide
which ones you will learn and present to the public and which
ones you’ll put aside for a year or two or six or twelve?
JF: It’s an
interesting process that you go through to decide
what pieces you would like to add to your repertoire or bring back to
your repertoire. This year, for instance, I’m adding to my
repertoire with a number of performances. Here in Lake Forest I’m
adding the Rachmaninov Symphonic
Dances. It’s a piece that I have known but I’ve never
before this season. It’s very exciting to make that decision
to add a piece and then to have the chance to do it several times,
because for me that really crystallizes the essence of the
piece. Then this same season I’m
bringing back Dvorak’s Symphony
Number Eight which I did years and
years ago, but now maybe have a different viewpoint about.
BD: Did you
approach it with a clean score?
no. I always use my old scores, but I don’t always observe
my markings. It’s funny. My scores sort of look like a
history of my conducting training because I’ve got marks in them back
from when I was a student at Julliard. My teacher,
Jorge Mester, said, “Never do this, and always do this.” [See my Interview with Jorge
Mester.] And there are marks from the various performances
that I’ve done. So it’s kind of
a record for me of how the piece has developed, so I keep everything in
there and just decide what is right for me now. But it is hard to know
what pieces of the repertoire to do, what to let
go for a couple of years and what to bring back. Sometimes I
feel my colleagues tend to do the same pieces over and over
again, and there is just so much repertoire. I have done a lot of
new music. I worked for a number of
years with the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco which was almost
all new music at every concert, and that gives you kind of a fresh
perspective on the old music, too, because I got so used to
approaching scores that had no recordings and no performance tradition.
BD: Is it
easier or harder to teach an
orchestra a piece that they have not heard as opposed to a piece that
they have heard many times?
it’s harder to teach a
piece that they’ve heard many times. Ideally you’d like to do is
approach it with a clean slate,
without the kind of traditions that get tacked on over the years or the
way that we always hear it on the recordings. But, for me, having
had the experience of coming up with
a first-time interpretation for a new piece of music where there is no
set interpretation, it’s been helpful to approach
older pieces that way, too. Not to just do it the way it’s always
done is actually a big challenge, I think. You
might notice when you listen to recordings today, more and more
recordings are starting to sound alike. It’s very hard to have a
fresh perspective on a piece because everyone
seems to be doing it the same way. I don’t know whether
that’s because people now have more access to recordings so there is
one way to do it. I’ve been told that 80 years
ago or 100 years ago, to hear a Beethoven Fifth in New York and then a
Beethoven Fifth in Boston was
a completely different experience because
there was no set way. They didn’t have the standard CD that everyone
thought was the best one. You really had conductors, and
sometimes there were abuses of the score, too. There were
conductors who would cut out certain bars and other conductors who
rescore them and put trombones in when there were no trombones.
But at least there was a responsibility on the part of the
conductor to create something, to have an individual interpretation.
BD: Does it
take even more guts on your part
if you discover something in the score that you know is radically
different from the standard interpretation?
JF: It does,
and I think that sometimes it
is a risk. Sometimes people are not ready to hear something a
different way. They’ve got their favorite CD at home.
it is the same thing for critics. They’ve heard it so many times,
hear it played a different way is sometimes shocking. But I think
that is part of the responsibility of being a conductor.
We have to walk a fine line, hopefully honoring the score as the
ultimate resource as what the composer wanted. But you know that
the musical notational language is very vague, so there is a great deal
of room for personal interpretation. That’s the whole extra layer
of the concert. In
honoring what the composer wants, you still inject a great deal of your
own personality. But it should be your own personality; it
shouldn’t be a carbon copy of Leonard Bernstein’s performance. So
it’s a challenge, it’s a challenge. As we hear
more and more, progress sort of robs us of individuality
sometimes because we don’t have to be individuals, we can hear
everybody else’s ideas.
BD: When you go
from one orchestra to another, are you
able to infuse all of your ideas into each performance or do you find
that you can just go so far and just let it go at that?
performance with a different orchestra is
different. I basically have an interpretation of a piece that I’ve
worked out and makes sense. But you learn a
great deal from orchestras. You might work with an orchestra
that has a particularly brilliant brass section or a very poetic
principal clarinet or a
wonderful solo cello, and all of a sudden the piece changes for
you because their playing gives you ideas. They may not
even be aware of it, but their interpretation and their personality
through their playing and it affects everyone in the orchestra.
So every performance is quite different; not that one is better
than another, but that’s the flexibility of the notational system
that it can happen that way. Sometimes even one performance
to another of the same orchestra is different, or the dress
rehearsal and the performance is different because of a different
BD: Is all
your work done in rehearsal or do you
leave something for that spark of the performance?
JF: There always is something
in the performance that’s
different, and that’s risky, too, because if you
rehearse everything to the nth degree so that there’s no room for
spontaneity, you rob the performance of a little bit. The
performance is the time when inspiration enters into
it. The rehearsals are hard work, with drilling and making sure
everything is well in tune or with good ensemble and correct
articulation. But then in the performance something else has to
happen. A performance where everything was correct could be
deadly. It has to have a kind of
spontaneity and risk taking. Sometimes audiences don’t understand
that. They’re so used to CDs which are now all controlled by
hear that harp run in their CD that is never possible in an
orchestra. They’ll hear a perfect performance with
never a little glitch here and there, and they’ll come to a live
performance and it’s different. You don’t hear everything quite
same way, and things happen sometimes. But the true music lover,
think, relishes that; he relishes the idea that anything could happen
the performance, and it will be different on Friday night than it
will be on Saturday night. And this performance will be different
the one we heard three years ago. It will definitely be different
from the CD. We don’t know what’s going to happen; we really
don’t know, and I think that is what makes it so incredibly special.
BD: What is
your advice for audiences who come
to live performances?
JF: Try and
be as open-minded as possible. I give people this advice, “When
you come to a live
performance, don’t listen to music that day.” Maybe that’s
sort of a silly thing, but I find that sometimes people
have had the radio on all day long and they put the car radio on and
they run into the concert two minutes before it begins, and they don’t
to read the program notes and they wonder why they can’t listen, or why
the music doesn’t have an impact on them. It’s because they’re
tired out. They’ve been listening all day long, and they
don’t even allow themselves time to rest to prepare to listen.
themselves and their
Absolutely. Rest themselves and their
ears. In the past, when music was not so accessible,
concerts were much more valued experiences because that was the
only way you heard music. You really looked forward to it.
concentrated intently while you were there, and then you remembered
it because you didn’t have any other opportunity to hear
music for awhile. So in a way, music is so accessible now that we
don’t value it as being special. We very often relegate it to a
background, which it shouldn’t be. Sadly, we may be losing our
ability to listen without doing something else. Listening by
itself is really an art form that is dying.
BD: Virgil Thomson
once told me all this creates a sort of lack
of attention. [See my Interview with Virgil Thomson.]
JF: Yeah, it
does, it does. And musicians rely on the audience’s attention
because music it is an
art form where you can’t go back and say, “Wait! What was
Can I hear that again?” or, “I missed two minutes because I was
daydreaming and I really don’t know why, so what’s happening?” We
can’t go back. It’s not like a painting on the wall where you
look at it and look back again and think about it at your own time and
your own pace. If you don’t follow a thread of a piece of music,
it’s hard to really get a feeling that it makes sense, that it
builds up to something and then comes away and ends in a spot
that feels right. You need to have the attention to follow that
BD: I asked
about advice for audiences; what advice
do you have for younger conductors coming along?
younger conductors I think that the
only way one can really consider being a conductor is if this is
really all you want in life. Like any career in
music, it’s the kind of thing where you don’t choose to be a musician;
it chooses you and you know you have no other option.
Conducting is something that for me is an unbelievable privilege to be
on the podium. I feel that every time in a rehearsal or in a
performance. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m lucky enough to be
standing on the podium in the middle of an orchestra like the Lake
Forest Symphony and working with them because it’s an
extraordinary pleasure to be involved with
art on that level. But it also requires tremendous
dedication. That’s the only way you can get the most out of
have to be willing to think of it as a lifelong study. It really
is. It’s not something that you say, “Well, now I’m a
conductor.” No. You never really know the piece well
enough. I think most conductors feel this way; I
would hope so. You never know it well enough. As much as
you study it, there’s always more that you see in it. Sometimes
I’ll do a piece again three or four years later and say, “Why didn’t
that?” or “How could I have missed that?” Yet at the time I
ready to see it, I suppose. André Previn said a thing that
was particularly beautiful. He said, “Every time we conduct a
piece we get a little closer to what it means, but we never find the
center of it. We just get closer.” So the idea that all
of your life you’re changing and developing and reassessing yourself,
reevaluating what you’re doing, constantly studying, is something that
you have to love. You have to love that idea of constantly
developing and working. I can’t imagine doing
anything else, because for me it is the most tremendous source of joy
be able to work with an orchestra and to hear things develop and get
better and come out with an interpretation that hopefully
communicates this unbelievable music to the audience.
BD: Are you
getting tired of occasionally being
the first woman to conduct this orchestra or the first woman to do this
JF: When I
decided to become a conductor I
was only about 11, and I was very
naïve. I never realized that women weren’t
conductors. I’d never seen a woman do it, but it just never
me that it might be anything other than chance.
BD: So your
philosophy is, “Why not?”
yeah. I never set out to prove that women could conduct because I
didn’t realize that they weren’t conducting. I’m glad about
that because I never think of myself as a woman
conductor; I just think of myself as a
conductor. In many situations I am the
first woman to conduct, especially in Europe where it’s still
relatively rare. I try not to get too involved in it
really, because to work as a conductor you really can’t be aware of
potential prejudices or how people feel about it, and that’s been very
helpful for me. If the idea that I
as a woman am the first woman conducting that orchestra helps people to
think, “Well, this is fine, and there’s no reason why a
woman can’t compose or can’t play a violin or can’t conduct an
orchestra,” then I’m very happy about it. And I think that
in a way that’s happened. The classical music world is
very conservative, but it’s changing slowly and we’re seeing
more and more incredible women composers who are being performed all
over. And now there are more than just a
handful of women conductors and women concertmasters, which 50 years
have been unheard of. So things are changing and they’re
changing from inside, I think.
BD: At the
beginning, did you perhaps stay away from
the woman composer because you didn’t want to be thought of as the
woman conductor who brings the woman composer along?
actually I didn’t, and maybe it was a big
mistake. I was actually working with Milwaukee
Symphony as Associate Conductor when I got a call from the Women’s
Philharmonic in San Francisco asking if I would like to come out and
conduct a concert and see what I thought about them. They were
looking for a music director.
BD: Are they a full-size
orchestra or a chamber group?
JF: It is a
full-size orchestra. And I’m
embarrassed to say that I asked what sort of
repertoire they were doing, and they said, “We only do music by women
composers.” And I said, “What women composers?” Can you
imagine how ignorant I sounded? Because my music training had
absolutely traditional, I had just worked on Brahms,
Beethoven, Stravinsky, etc. I’m so embarrassed about it now, but
truly didn’t know any women composers. But
I went out there, saw their library and the kind of
dedication they had to bringing new pieces by women to the
public. I learned a tremendous amount. In the nine
years I worked with them, I learned so much about new music and about
women composers. I shouldn’t say “women
composers” because to me there really is no
difference. I have
to be honest about that. People often ask me, “If you look
at a score, can you tell?” And I have to be honest, if the name
were covered up I would not be able tell. Shulamit Ran is a woman
who wrote this incredible cello concerto that I
performed. There’s nothing
gender-related about music.
jest] They don’t make their notes in the shape of little hearts?
[Smiling] No. Perhaps the public expects a harp cadenza, or
a lot of flute. I don’t know what people would
think, but sometimes I’m surprised by their reaction.
I remember the first time I performed the Amy Beach Symphony, some
people came back and said, “But how could have this been written
by a woman? It was so strong. It was so masculine.”
It was just in the style of time. It was very
Schumann-like, Dvořák-like, but they were surprised at the
the piece. It’s been wonderful for
me to bring some this music around and to bring it to other
And while I’m not really a fan of the all-woman composers
program, just like I’m not really a fan of the all-contemporary
composers program, I’m very happy to be able to introduce a new
composer to an audience.
BD: Would it
be fair to do an all-Schumann program and put
some Clara in there as well as Robert?
not? Why not? I haven’t actually had a chance to this on
the same program, but
I often thought it would be interesting to do both piano
concertos – the Clara Schumann Piano Concerto and the Robert
Schumann Piano Concerto
– and let audiences just hear the
difference, the relationship of these two incredible pieces.
BD: Let me
ask the big
question – what’s the purpose of music?
purpose of music... No one has
ever asked the question quite that way. It’s hard
to express, but for me it simply is one of greatest expressions of
what a human being can do. We read about the
terrible things that human beings are capable of and how depressing
sometimes life can be. On the other hand, we have this legacy of
the best of what people are capable of. For me, the best thing
that music can do is make me proud, in a way, to be a human
being, because if human beings can create something so
extraordinary, with all their flaws and all their problems and all
their difficulties and vices, if they can create something
so extraordinarily moving and powerful and emotional, that says a great
deal about what the human spirit is capable of. So I feel lucky
because as a conductor, as a musician, I’m involved always
with the very best
that humans have to offer. We can just revel in it.
BD: Even if
it’s a depiction of a terrible subject?
yes. Sometimes it’s the most
powerful, such as the music composed at the
beginning of the Second World War, or at the beginning of the First
War particularly. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when
Europe was undergoing this tremendous upheaval, to the Europeans
life seemed to be falling apart. This was the end of the
world; crime and terror was gripping Europe. Composers who were
writing at that time – Bartók,
Ravel – are so eloquent about what
can be better. In their protest of man’s inhumanity, they are
making a statement that is so strong and so wonderful that it has
to cause us to take a look at it and say, “What are we doing?
Look at what we are capable of doing in the best sense and never forget
that.” So at the core, that
is what music means to me. It represents the almost God-like
side of what people can do. Not being a
composer myself, it makes me have incredible respect for
the composer. Many times the composer himself probably is not
even aware that what he is doing is so great. He’s
working through something that is going to become a classic and
communicate so much to people. He’s not even aware of that many
times. But I feel such respect for the people who create.
Then, as a recreative musician, a musician who interprets,
it’s a great privilege to be able to work with these masterpieces
and potential masterpieces. Sometimes in new works, we
don’t know. Very often people will say to me, “Who is the
great composer of the 1990s? Who’s going to last? Who is
going to be the next Beethoven?” And I always say, “We don’t
know.” We really don’t know because we
don’t have the
distance to know. Fifty years from now we’ll have a better sense
of who is important, just as now we have a strong sense
of who was important in the early twentieth century. We know who
should we not still play music of some of the minor figures from
the early part of the century?
Absolutely, absolutely. In a sense
I think it’s very sad that we don’t do that for all of music
history. There were so many more composers in Mozart’s time that
deserve to be played, but 50 years from now, probably we will
know who were the most important voices of the late 20th century.
Now we don’t know, and it’s kind of an adventure for us, as
musicians and as music lovers, to listen to lots of different things
wonder will Christopher Rouse be the next Beethoven? [See my Interview with
Christopher Rouse.] Will
Shulamit Ran be a very significant voice? Right now they’re
interesting, they’re vibrant, and potentially classic
BD: The music
that you deal with all
the time is concert music, serious music, classical music, whatever
label we want to hang on it. How can we get more audiences
who are either not familiar with this music or who just go to rock
concerts or listen to MTV?
JF: This is a big
symphony orchestras, especially now that we’re dealing with very
financially troubled times in the symphony world. I think the
important thing that we should realize is that we don’t have to
apologize for what we do. This is so important to me because I
find that many orchestras tend to take the kind of hysterical
approach. “We’ll try and make our concerts like rock concerts and
they’ll come.” Or, “We’ll only do Beatles
tunes arranged for orchestra and then we’ll get the Beatles
fans.” It doesn’t work. The orchestra has an
integrity for what it does. On the other hand, we can probably
break down some of the barriers that
have nothing to do with music. For instance, can someone come
dressed to a concert? Why not? Or should concerts always
be at 8:00 at night? Why can’t they be the 6:00; rush
hour concerts or whatever? Or can they be shorter in
length? Yes, that’s fine. I think the thing to preserve is
the fact that the orchestra is playing great repertoire and
nobody need apologize for that. There was an essay in
Civilization that said the
worst thing an orchestra can ever do is to
talk down to its audience, and I think that’s true.
Sometimes we don’t give the American public enough credit for their
intelligence. Granted, not all of them are musically trained
or have much music background, and that’s the fault of
our educational system that they’re not given that. But that
doesn’t mean that they’re not intelligent, well-educated, insightful
people. There’s no reason why we have to talk down to
them. We can present to them a great work of art and help them
understand it. “Help them”
and even “understand it”
too strong an idea. Let us help them have a human reaction to it,
BD: Can we
try and convince them that it’s accessible
on a certain level but then there’s more depth behind it?
Yes. I think a lot of orchestras are
doing this. I know I do it in Long Beach and Virginia. The
audience comes an hour before and I talk about the music. It’s
not so much from a scholarly point of view; it’s more from
a point of view of what did this piece mean to the composer? What was
life like when he wrote it? What can you get out of it?
should you listen for? We did Ein
Heldenleben in Long Beach, and if you
come in cold and listen for 40 minutes, you may not
know what’s going on. You leave saying, “That was
really long.” If you come in an hour before and hear about
the six sections, and this theme is Strauss himself, and these are his
the critics, and at this point this is his wife who he loved for his
entire life, all of a sudden these people who know nothing
about Richard Strauss are intrigued by this idea of this man
telling us a little about his life. They leave that concert hall
feeling that they understood Ein
Heldenleben. And that’s the
whole clue. If an audience feels successful, that they had an
experience that meant something to them, they’ll be back. They
don’t have to have an easy Pops experience, but they have to have the
door opened for them. That’s all. Then it can be
accessible to them. That’s our only hope, I think, because
we really are battling the result of a lack of music education in the
schools for many, many years. Also, there is the lack of amateur
music making in
this country, which I think is so sad. In the past,
there were lots of people who made music on an amateur level.
They played string quartets in their houses, or they played piano in
churches or at home. We’ve become a culture that frowns on
amateurism. If someone doesn’t do something on a
completely professional level, they’re discouraged from doing it.
I think that is one of the most tragic things – that
we don’t encourage and celebrate the avocational musician on any level,
from the person who sings in the church choir to the person who plays
violin in a string quartet of friends in his house.
BD: Should we
try to re-establish orchestral Little
Yes. I would, and I think this is also a
good point. As orchestras find themselves in
trouble, there is a theory that’s been put forth that maybe we
don’t need so many orchestras. Maybe we should have 30 mega
orchestras in the country and they would serve everyone.
The state of California could use two orchestras with one that would
play in all the cities in northern California. This would be a
orchestra of 200 people or so, and they would travel around and be at a
very high level, and that’s what we need. There’s a
very important man in the industry who really is a proponent of
sounds like Merger Mania.
it’s just crazy. He’s
ignoring the fact that every city should celebrate it’s
own orchestra. Certainly a little town in California
is not going to have an orchestra like the LA Philharmonic, but it
doesn’t matter. Sometimes the most interesting things in
the orchestral world happen on the grassroots level with the smaller
orchestras because they’re the ones who are taking chances.
They’re the ones who don’t have to bring in the $50,000-a-night Itzhak
Perlman every weekend. They’re the ones who can be more
creative. That’s where change is happening, in the smaller
orchestras. It would be a shame to think that we only need
the really big institutions and we don’t need the smaller institutions.
BD: Do a lot
of people who go to the smaller
orchestras also go to the Los Angeles Philharmonic... and vice versa?
JF: I think
they do. If you travel and you’re proud of your hometown
orchestra, you go to
another city and want to hear their orchestra too. It engenders
a kind of national interest in orchestras, but I can’t imagine not
having those metropolitan and urban orchestras.
BD: Then if you’re
living in suburban Los Angeles, do you
go to both?
JF: In some
cases, yes. Why not?
Another question that comes up is whether we have too many arts
organizations. Is there
too much competition and that’s why we can’t survive? Actually, I
think the more arts we have available, the more people will avail
themselves of it. The more concerts there are, the more people go
to concerts. It creates an interest, it stimulates an interest
rather than saying we should only have one concert a month so that we
can be sure that people will come. I don’t think they come
then. But if they’re used to going, if they’re used to
being involved in the arts and having an active participation in the
then they will come.
made a number of recordings. Do
you conduct the same for the microphone as you do for a live audience?
JF: It’s very
different making a recording. It’s a very odd experience because
in some cases you
are recording after a performance, and that’s very nice because you’ve
rehearsed it, you’ve given a performance and you go into the recording
studio with basically the same intensity level. But often you are
recording without the benefit of any rehearsal at all, and this is
particularly true in London. You step in front of the London
Symphony, which is an incredible orchestra in terms of sight reading;
they can really read anything. But the tape starts rolling from
the beginning, and everything that orchestra plays is on that
tape. And the final result is kind of a hodgepodge of the
editor’s view of what’s the best take of this and that. Of course
the conductor approves it, but…
BD: You don’t have
any input in it?
JF: You have
some input, but it’s a very, very different experience than actually
performance with the intensity and the
excitement and drama of that.
BD: Are you
pleased with the recordings that you’ve made so far?
am. I’m especially pleased because a lot
of them are unusual repertoire. The two discs we did with
Philharmonic really were the first time any of
this music had been recorded. There were names people recognize,
such as Clara Schumann and Fannie Mendelssohn, and a couple of
recordings have been with American composers, again, whose works have
never been recorded. So that’s been a great deal of fun.
BD: Are you
going to be nervous when they start
asking you for your Beethoven cycle and your Dvořák material?
probably. The most
recent one is actually disc of music with the Ravel Mother Goose, which is
a piece that’s often recorded. I spent a great deal of
time on thinking what would be, for me, an interpretation that would
up the essence of the piece, not listening to anyone else’s
interpretation but to come up with something that hopefully is
fresh. And that’s very hard. As you say, approaching the
Beethoven symphonies and the Dvořák symphonies will be very,
BD: It’s got
to be fresh, but not fresh just to
Absolutely. It can’t be quirky. Sometimes people say, “I’ve
is the right tempo,” and it doesn’t make any sense. It was done
just for the sake of being different. Being truly fresh is a
very, very hard thing to come up with. Sometimes I
think that some of the early music groups or the original instrument
have degenerated into the “different just to be
different” syndrome. And I always say that
little bit of fear because some of them have done fabulous work.
For conductors who don’t always work in that genre, we
learn a lot from them, frankly. We really learn a lot from kind
the stripping away of years of tradition and a fresh approach.
But, as you say, there’s a difference between a
fresh approach and an approach that is different just to make an
impact of being different. It’s hard to always find an
approach with integrity that’s different.
BD: Are you
pleased to be at the point in your career
to where you’ve arrived now?
JF: I feel very
lucky. Mostly yes, I’m pleased. I think that what’s
for me is that since I left school, or since I was actually in school,
I’ve had the opportunity to conduct all the time. I see that
many of my colleagues who are incredibly talented don’t have that
opportunity, and frankly you cannot learn how to conduct unless
you’re conducting. In school you learn how to approach
a score. You learn the basics about conducting. But when
you have your degree and you graduate, you don’t know very much about
conducting. The only way you learn is by standing in front of
musicians, making mistakes, choosing the wrong tempo, saying the wrong
things, hearing things for the first time. It’s amazing how
much you can learn and how fast you learn on the podium.
That’s where you really learn quickly and is the only way you can
learn. So, I feel I’ve been very
fortunate in that I have been able to conduct since I was 19 or 20 and
just keep conducting. The orchestras that I worked
with were good for me at the time. When I was a young
conductor, I worked with an orchestra that wasn’t very good, but I
learned from them and they learned from me; it was appropriate.
as I became more confident and developed as a conductor, I was
challenged by orchestras that were stronger and needed more from
me. So I think that I’ve been especially lucky in that the
progress has been well-timed. Now I’m working with orchestras
that challenge me, not in correcting rhythms and correcting
notes, but really in getting to the essence of what the piece is and
how are we going to say something special about it. So I
feel very, very fortunate and very lucky. I am also very lucky to
started out at a time when it was possible for women because I know
there are some of my older colleagues that were very, very gifted
but it was just not the right time. I remember a
conversation I had many years ago with Margaret Hillis. She was
wonderful to me and she said, “I always
wanted to be an orchestral conductor and I couldn’t because of the
time. I never really set out to
be a choral conductor, but that was all the option I had at that
time.” [See my Interview
with Margaret Hillis.] I realized how lucky I was that at
least at the time I
was studying, although it was a little odd, it wasn’t impossible.
BD: Do you
like all the travel?
JF: I don’t
like actually the traveling itself. When I was very young, I
thought, “Oh how
glamorous. You go and stay in a hotel for a week and then get on
BD: It gets
real old real fast.
JF: Oh it does;
it’s not glamorous at all. It’s
really very, very tiring. But what I do like is the opportunity
to work with different musicians. That I find very
stimulating. There have been times when I’ve gotten off
the plane and had to go right to rehearsal because of the timing.
I’ve gotten off the plane feeling dreadful, feeling
depressed, feeling tired and thinking, “How am I ever going to
conduct for two and a half hours? I’ll never get through
this.” And ten or fifteen minutes into the rehearsal, I
feel fantastic. Now that’s a tribute to what music does and what
the energy of 90 musicians around you can do for you. At the end
of the rehearsal, I am completely reenergized,
reinvigorated and I’m feeling thrilled to be there.
You’re just an old firehorse – you
hear the bell and you’re off.
you’re off. But working is wonderful. The other things that
along with it – having to travel – is
not always the
best part of it.
Speaking of travel, tell me about conducting in Beijing.
JF: That was
a very interesting experience to conduct in a city where I had to use
interpreter. Usually I don’t have to do that. The
musicians were not particularly used to Western music
because many of them had grown up during the Cultural Revolution.
So for ten years they heard nothing of Western music. We
were doing Brahms, and the way that I could get them to play was just
to sing it to them and then they would imitate the phrasing
back. But it was very interesting. We take that phrasing
for granted in the United States. Our tradition is so Western
European that we know how to play Brahms because we’ve always heard it
played this way. For Chinese people, they were discovering how to
play Brahms and they wanted so much to have the Western
cadence. I had to sing it to them to help them do that, but
they were very talented.
BD: Did you
learn any Chinese music when you were
JF: I did one
Chinese piece on the program and I
loved it. The piece was
extraordinarily difficult rhythmically. Any
American orchestra would have had trouble with it at the
beginning, but this Chinese orchestra had no problem with it at
all. Through an interpreter I asked the
concertmaster why and he said, “But this is folk
music.” That’s the whole
thing. They understood those rhythms intrinsically, while Brahms
for them was a foreign
getting lots of engagements and you’re working steadily. Are you
time for yourself?
JF: I have to
be careful about that. Sometimes
I find that in the excitement of doing concerts and
learning repertoire, I have to be
careful to allow enough space for myself, to have time just to
relax. It may seem silly that you have to program
that in, but one year I worked
through the whole summer, and when September came around it was very,
very hard to even think about starting a new season. So I have to
careful about that. I have to make sure that I
allow time in my life for little things – even
like going for a bike ride
or a walk. When I’m different cities, I try to make sure
I go to their museums, or get out and just walk
around and meet people. I find that can that be very
relaxing, too, to get a little bit away from music. For
musicians, sometimes it’s just very
hard to forget about music because it’s never a nine-to-five
occupation. It’s something that really consumes
you. You need to just make sure that you’re broadening
yourself enough and not becoming too narrowly focused on what you’re
BD: One last
question. Is conducting fun?
JF: It is
fun. It’s a
tremendous thrill. That’s not to say there are not
times on the podium that are very stressful. There are
very stressful times when rehearsals are not going well or musicians
may not be responding as you hoped. Sometimes in concert things
go badly and you’re under tremendous stress. But
regardless of that, regardless of the things that go wrong, the idea of
being surrounded by the sound that the conductor hears standing on that
podium, and the incredible repertoire with which you work, it is a
tremendous thrill. I can’t imagine
anything more satisfying than conducting.
BD: I hope
you continue it for a long time.
JF: Thank you.
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© 1996 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Lake Forest, IL, on September
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB later that year and in 1999, and on WNUR in
2005. This transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.