Female Conductor JoAnn Falletta Joins Ulster Orchestra

The newly appointed Principal Conductor is one of the few female conductors on the professional circuit

In the world of orchestras, there have always been debates over the question of whether it is better to have permanent conductors or guest conductors. In the last century, it was generally agreed that the former was preferable.

A few great conductors were associated for long periods of time with particular orchestras – like Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic for 21 years; Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony for 25 years; Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic for 35 years.

These conductors obviously thought that, under their long-term guiding batons, their orchestras would produce a very special and unique sound. No-one could deny that that was the case. Some conductors actively fought against the very idea of guest conductors being engaged for 'their' orchestras.

But as the 20th century progressed, such restrictive attitudes became less and less the norm, probably as a result of the facility of travel and the increase of numbers in the conducting profession. Exclusive conducting deals with a lengthy relationship clause fell out of favour.

It is noticeable, then, that in JoAnn Falletta’s career to date she has had lengthy and, latterly, concurrent associations as Music Director with two American orchestras – 11 years with the Buffalo Philharmonic and 20 years with the Virginia Symphony.

Now she has begun a relationship with the Ulster Orchestra as Principal Conductor for a three-year period, beginning in September 2011. She is looking forward to working in Northern Ireland, and not just because she likes the warmth and friendliness of the people and what she’s seen of the countryside so far. It’s also because she admires the professionalism and individual abilities of the players in the Ulster Orchestra.

Falletta comes to Northern Ireland with a reputation. She has appeared with some of the finest American orchestras – such as those in Philadelphia, Detroit, Montreal, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St Louis and Houston. The list is impressive and lengthy.

'Guest conducting is exciting and it is fascinating to have the opportunity to work with a new orchestra and experience the acoustics of a new hall,' Falletta told CultureNorthernIreland. 'These experiences can be very happy ones and artistically stimulating as well, but they cannot match the satisfaction that comes from shaping the long-term artistic growth of an orchestra.'

Such influence only comes within a trusting relationship and that only comes with time. But Falletta is not afraid of putting effort into building these associations. As one of the few female conductors on the professional circuit, she was an obvious choice for the Woman’s Philharmonic in San Francisco with whom she worked for ten years.

'The orchestra was dedicated to the performance of works of women composers, both contemporary and historical,' she recalls. 'The orchestra of women played largely to an audience of women, and was definitely not your typical concert experience. I enjoyed a beautiful camaraderie with those players and they had a special relationship with each other.'

Falletta is aware of her gender but does not use it as a lever. She admires what she calls the 'pioneer woman conductors and artists' like Nadia Boulanger, Ethel Smythe, Margaret Hillis, Margaret Hawkins, Sarah Caldwell, Eve Queler and Antonia Brico, but she knows that, nowadays, the context and environment of the arts has changed radically.

'I remember that my earliest reviews often mentioned my hairstyle and my clothing,' she laughs. 'That does not happen so often now! Gender seems not be an issue in today's view of artists.'

The success of an orchestra is often dependent upon the support it receives from its own community. Falletta is savvy enough to realise that in her role as a Principal Conductor, she is central to developing relationships with artistic, political and business leaders in that community.

She has the experience to know that it’s a long term process, which can significantly contribute to the artistic and financial health of the arts organization. She wants to make a difference through others and, in her case, it is through orchestral players.

'I like working in the stimulating reality that every orchestra is a unique entity with its own distinctive sound, sensibilities and approach,' she concludes. 'Each orchestra is a beautiful composite of all of the artists within it: their talents, personalities and musical individualities. Working with an orchestra over the years enables me to create an environment where excellence can flourish.'