1/9-10: JoAnn Falletta is Phoenix Symphony guest conductor

The classical-music world was abuzz with controversy late last year after three prominent maestros opined the conductor’s podium was no place for a woman.

That was certainly news to JoAnn Falletta, the award-winning music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in New York, who is also serving as principal guest conductor for the Phoenix Symphony this season.

Falletta is one of only 12 female conductors leading one of the nation’s top 103 symphonies, according to the League of American Orchestras. In Buffalo since 1999, she has restored a once-great symphony to international prominence, in part through a series of critically acclaimed recordings on the Naxos label. In Phoenix, she provides an experienced hand on the artistic reins as the symphony searches for a permanent maestro to replace Michael Christie, who left last spring after eight years.

“JoAnn is beyond well-regarded in the industry. She’s a legend,” says symphony president and CEO Jim Ward. “She’s a woman in what can be and traditionally has been a man’s world, and yet she has commanded the greatest orchestras across the country. She has wonderful longevity and perspective.”

In one of five concerts planned this season, Faletta conducted Chinese-born superstar Lang Lang playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in October. And this week she returns to lead performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 along with George Enescu’s “Romanian Rhapsody” and Alberto Ginastera’s Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, featuring guest soloist Yolanda Kondonassis.

Question: Beethoven’s Fifth is the most famous symphony in history. How do you approach conducting it?

Answer: With any well-known piece, we tend to think we know it, and we don’t always pay attention to the details or the absolutely amazing things this symphony is. It’s famous and beloved because it’s an absolutely great piece of music.

So for me, I think the job is to look to forget about the traditions that have become tacked onto it —you know, we always hear it this way, so it must be this way. Look to the score and try to see it with fresh eyes, as if you hadn’t known it before. And get the musicians to do that to, to get them to not take the piece for granted. If we can do that together, the audience might be surprised by it.

Q: In contrast, Ginastera’s harp concerto is something more unusual for the Phoenix Symphony.

A: There are a number of harp concertos, but they’re not often played. There are a lot of French harp concertos that are very fluffy and they’re great for the harpist, but they’re not the best music. But the Ginastera is a great piece of music. It’s edgy, it’s new, and I think it will surprise people. And that’s partly why it’s on the program with the Beethoven Fifth, because most people have never heard that piece, and we want to give them a little menu (variety). Yolanda is one of the greatest living harpists, and this is a piece that she feels very strongly about.

Q: You first concert this season was with Lang Lang. How does your job change when you’re conducting a superstar?

A: You tend to be a little bit more deferential as a conductor, because you know they’re coming in to make a big splash with a piece that they feel very strongly about. So in that situation, you create the best landscape for him to have the success that he so deserves and to show him at his very best, to create that possibility. But one of the most fun parts of my job, frankly, is accompanying soloists, because they always bring something different. They bring their character, their way of making music, and the conductor and the orchestra enjoy that a great deal. It’s always a lot of fun.

Q: Orchestras across the county are facing financial troubles and declining audiences. What can they do to keep the art form alive and make it relevant to new audiences?

A: We have to be imaginative about it. On the plus side, our musicians are playing at the highest level they ever have. I’m talking about orchestras that are not top five, top 10, playing at a truly superb level. American musicians coming out of conservatories are so well trained and so skilled that our orchestras are truly the strongest in the world. I see a lot of young people coming out of conservatories who want to be part of the solution. They want to communicate to the public how they feel about this music. And that’s making a difference.

Q: Why have you emphasized recording in at the Buffalo Philharmonic, particularly since the standard repertoire has been recorded over and over?

A: It’s been one of the major catalysts in our artistic growth, our relationship with Naxos especially. We’re held to a very high standard by the company, and we are also asked to record pieces that are not standard. We’ve recorded Josef Suk, we’ve recorded (Erno) Dohnanyi, we’ve recorded a lot of American composers. We’ve recorded many pieces that the orchestra didn’t know, and we’ve had to do it on a very high level.

Frankly, when we first started recording 10 years ago or so, we were all a little at sea. We probably wasted a lot of time. We didn’t quite know how to approach the process. But we learned. And I’ve seen (with) every recording session the orchestra growing, in terms of how they listen, how they solve problems, what they expect of themselves.

Q: As a performer, your primary instrument was guitar. Does that influence your approach to conducting?

A: Being a guitarist first and foremost — I started on my seventh birthday, and it will always be the instrument that’s in my heart — did give me a different perspective. One, and this might be more obvious, guitar is a harmonic instrument, so it is accompanying a great deal. Signers, flutists, violinists, I accompanied people constantly growing up. Playing chamber music with small ensembles was great training for me.

At a not so obvious level, guitar is an instrument that is not able to sustain a sound. You know, you pluck the string and the sound decays. So we are always creating an illusion of a phrase, of something connecting to something else. And in concentrating on that all my life, on making phrases go somewhere, thinking of momentum, thinking of connection of notes, I’ve become obsessed with the architecture of music, and that has helped me a great deal in large forms.

When we do a Mahler symphony and it’s 90 minutes long, all of that has to make sense. As a conductor, that’s my main role. The audience has to hear this long symphony and somehow have a sense of rightness at the end of it, that it worked, like a great novel that unfolds itself.

Q: What is your approach to conducting? What techniques do you use when working with musicians?

A: The most important thing is to listen to them. Conducting an orchestra is not about the conductor, it’s about the musicians. It’s very important to me conducting the Phoenix Symphony that their Tchaikovsky Fourth or their Beethoven Fifth is going to be something that makes sense for them. That’s the most wonderful thing, that you have 80, 85, a hundred if it’s a big piece, players in front of you, all consummate artists, who all somehow bring their intelligence, their musicianship, their imagination to this combined effort. And listening to them and being inspired by them is the true magic.

Details: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 9. Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, 7380 E. Second St. $33-$53. 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10. Symphony Hall, 75 N. Second St., Phoenix $18-$83. (The morning “Coffee Classics” performance omits the “Romanian Rhapsody.”) 602-495-1999, phoenixsymphony.org.

Reach the reporter at kerry.lengel@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4896.