A Friend in Falletta



No question, JoAnn Falletta is all about the partnership.

It was one of the reasons she came to Norfolk 24 years ago—though she doesn’t discount the community’s “perfect blend of small-town warmth and big-city attitude”—to take the helm of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra

“It wasn’t a cultural region like it is now, but it was a good time for the symphony,” she recalls. “The board [of directors] had coalesced. The musicians were focused on excellence. There was work to do, but there was great spirit, great talent. It was the right time because everyone was ready to work to go to the next level. There was a feeling of optimism and great possibility.”

And, for her, a new challenge: Falletta, 37 in 1991, was taking the baton as a full-time music director for the first time. She saw that as a partnership, too.

“It was a very big step,” she says. “I felt I had the responsibility, in a way, for the lives of all the musicians in the orchestra. And because it was full time, I was responsible for the whole layout of a season. What do we do? How many classical programs? How many pops? Which artists do we invite? It was a big job for me and a fast learning curve, but deeply satisfying to feel that together we were making a difference in the quality of life in Hampton Roads.”

Clearly, the partnership clicked.

Six years after her arrival—a blip on the classical music timeline—Falletta, born and bred in Queens, N.Y., led the VSO to New York for the symphony’s Carnegie Hall debut. That April 1997 performance, praised by The New York Times as “energetic, committed and ... finely polished,” was a collaboration within a collaboration: It featured the New York premiere of the Piano Concerto by Norfolk composer Adolphus Hailstork.

By any measure, Carnegie was a watershed moment, but, if broadened horizons and artistic growth are the markers, the partnership that followed is the one still paying dividends.

The musicians hardly had time to unpack before the curtain went up on the inaugural Virginia Arts Festival. Falletta paced the VSO through Carl Orff’s idiosyncratic “Carmina Burana” and a “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” that year, and the orchestra has had a featured role in every lineup since.

It will again when the festival begins its 19th season in April.

That’s been the plan all along, says Rob Cross, the executive and artistic director. The festival—it went by the more flowery Virginia Waterfront International Arts Festival its first few years—was designed with a twin purpose: to draw tourists to Hampton Roads and to raise the national profile of the region’s arts groups.

“As Rob brings in arts groups from around the world, he’s never abandoned his home orchestra,” Falletta says. “Many festivals are not like that; they just bring in groups from out of town. Rob does that, but he’s also included us in a significant way. People can say, ‘There’s the Virginia Symphony.’ We’re grateful for that. He’s invested in the orchestra.”

joann falletta virginia symphony orchestra coastal virginia magazine2015 Performances with JoAnn Falletta

This year’s project, a concert-opera presentation of Béla Bartók’s eerie Bluebeard’s Castle—Cross likens it to a “psycho-thriller”—promises to be a memorable collaboration. It features towering set pieces by the noted glass artist Dale Chihuly, each revealed as a young bride unlocks a series of mysterious doors in her husband’s castle. The sculptures will be flown in from Seattle, where the production was first staged by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. For the festival’s production, the Chrysler Museum of Art is mounting the exhibit Chihuly in the Garden and will set up its mobile glass studio on the plaza outside Chrysler Hall prior to the April 18–19 performances.

An Evening of Mahler” strips down two of the Austrian composer’s most gorgeous vocal works, “Songs of a Wayfarer,” written at the end of a love affair, and “Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth),” a grieving father’s cry at the death of his daughter, and recasts both as parlor music.

She’ll also lead Stravinsky’s genre-blending “The Soldier’s Tale” at the TCC Roper Performing Arts Center. Written in 1918, it’s a product of its times. With many musicians fighting in World War I, Stravinsky wrote it for those he could recruit, a unique, seven-piece ensemble of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion.

It’s not a stretch to say that the three productions that will feature the symphony—“Bluebeard’s Castle,” “An Evening of Mahler” and “A Soldier’s Tale”—are a sort of microcosm of what the festival, since Day 1, has always been about.

That’s not lost on Falletta, who says it points to why the orchestra has always been an eager participant.

“Being involved in a multi-arts festival, collaborating with the visual arts, with the theater, with opera, is healthy for us as musicians. Every year it’s more dynamic. The festival has this incredibly diverse approach where anything can happen.”

Read this article in full in the April 2015 issue of Coastal Virginia Magazine.

Learn more about Falletta, one of Coastal Virginia Magazine’s 10 Leading Ladies of 2013.

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