The Rapidian

JoAnn Falletta, trailblazing female conductor, joins Grand Rapids Symphony for concerts in DeVos Hall

Two-time Grammy Award winning conductor returns to Grand Rapids with some of her favorite music this weekend during Women's History Month
Underwriting support from:

Grand Rapids Symphony and Ravel's Piano Concerto

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 24-25

DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW

Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students

Call (616) 454-9451 ext. 4 or go online to grsymphony.org

 

Pianist Fabio Bidini will be soloist in Maurice Ravel's jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major

Pianist Fabio Bidini will be soloist in Maurice Ravel's jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major

JoAnn Falletta, a two-time Grammy Award winning conductor, has led over 100 orchestras across the globe.

JoAnn Falletta, a two-time Grammy Award winning conductor, has led over 100 orchestras across the globe. /Mark Dellas

JoAnn Falletta, as a child, dreamed of growing up and becoming an orchestra conductor when girls weren’t supposed to think such thoughts.

After all, there were none when the New York City native enrolled in Mannes School of Music in the early 1970s.

Today, the two-time Grammy Award winner, who has conducted over 100 top orchestras across the globe including the Grand Rapids Symphony, is one of the most important women in the world on the podium.

“I feel very lucky,” said Falletta, 63. “I came to conducting at the right time.”

The music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic returns to DeVos Hall this week to lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in music by Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss and others on Friday and Saturday, March 24-25, in DeVos Performance Hall.

Falletta’s appearance during Women’s History Month includes Italian pianist Fabio Bidini playing Ravel’s jazz-flavored Piano Concerto in G Major.  Ravel completed the concerto after visiting New Orleans and New York City, where he met George Gershwin in 1928.

Falletta also will lead the Grand Rapids Symphony in Ravel’s enchanting La Valse, and in an orchestral suite from Strauss’ operatic comedy, Der Rosenkavalier, two works she said are among her Top 10 favorites.

A short work titled Scherzo Crypto by Grand Rapids Symphony’s assistant principal oboist Alexander Miller rounds out the programs.

Grand Rapids Symphony audiences have seen more women on the podium than most audiences. Past guest conductors have included Mei-Ann Chen, Anne Manson and Gisele Ben-Dor. Falletta first conducted the Grand Rapids Symphony 13 years ago.

But in 1986, the GRS made history when it became the first regional, professional orchestra in the United States to appoint a woman as music director, Catherine Comet.

“It was a very big step,” Falletta recalled.

Comet, a French-born conductor trained at The Juilliard School, spent eleven seasons in Grand Rapids. She was a pioneer in the field and one of Falletta’s heroes.

“She was an icon for me and for several women in the profession,” Falletta said. “There are so many admirers of her. She was an amazing pioneer.”

During Falletta’s tenure from 1986 to 1997 as music director of the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco, an orchestra devoted to playing music of female composers, Comet made a guest appearance with the orchestra that continues today as the Community Women’s Orchestra.

“It was such a highlight, and I think she had a good time,” Falletta recalled. “The orchestra just adored her.”

In college in the 1970s, Falletta wasn’t discouraged from pursuing a career as a conductor. But neither was she encouraged. In 1972, she was admitted at Mannes School of Music to study classical guitar, but she was allowed to audit conducting classes.

“They were honest and caring,” Falletta said. “They weren’t sure there was a possibility that a woman could have a career in conducting, and I really appreciated that and their concern.”

Remarkably, one of her teachers also made a notable splash in Grand Rapids.

Semyon Bychkov, a young, recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union, was one of her conducting teachers at Mannes School of Music just before his appointment in 1980 as Grand Rapids Symphony Music Director.

“He’s a force of nature,” Falletta recalled. “He’s really dramatic and fierce and volatile and so passionate about music. He always saw the drama and emotion in music.”

During her graduate studies at The Juilliard School, Falletta participated in master classes led by Leonard Bernstein, the legendary conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

“He was an electrifying god,” Falletta recalled with a laugh. “But he was very gentle with us.”

Bernstein encouraged his students to focus on the passion and the emotion in the music more than the technical details of conducting.

“He talked a lot about what the music meant. He helped us to get past the details and on to what was truly important,” Falletta recalled. “It was truly a great experience, and I’ll always cherish that.”

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