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Long Beach Symphony Conductor Tunes In to People, Wins Ovation

June 18, 1989|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — JoAnn Falletta got a standing ovation recently.

Rising from folding chairs next to tables loaded with homemade food ranging from beans to meatballs, the audience, all over 55, gave the new director of the Long Beach Symphony a rousing response.

"We're all her adopted grandparents," quipped Mary Putnam, who had arranged the conductor's appearance at Leisure World, a retirement community in Seal Beach.

But Falletta, 35, was not directing a concert. Instead she was shaking hands and eating a potluck dinner in an effort to do something she plans to do a lot more of as she begins her reign as head of the 54-year-old musical organization: taking the orchestra to the people.

Can Enjoy Music

"People feel inadequate to enjoy classical music, and they're absolutely not," Falletta said with the determined yet friendly intensity that is becoming her trademark. "They are afraid to come to classical concerts because we have unknowingly put music in an ivory tower. We have to break down those barriers.

"For the American orchestra to survive, the director must be a (true) director--he or she has to be involved in the community in every sense."

That last item is an issue that has been something of a sore point in Long Beach ever since 1984 when the symphony canceled part of its season because of a $758,000 deficit. Eventually the orchestra, with a budget of about $1.5 million, clawed its way back to financial health, largely by reorganizing its management, persuading creditors such as the Bank of America to renegotiate outstanding debts and the city of Long Beach to forgive $100,000 of a $175,000 loan.

A Blue Ribbon Task Force that was convened by the city at the time recommended, among other things, replacing director Murry Sidlin with a director more committed to Long Beach and more available for public relations and fund raising. Although he had been with the orchestra since 1979, Sidlin still maintained his primary residence in New Haven, Conn.

Nothing came of it, however. And eventually the recommendation seemed to have been forgotten as the orchestra, back on firm financial footing, appeared to be reaching new artistic heights under Sidlin's baton.

Then two years ago, in a surprise move that created a flurry of protest, the symphony's board of directors announced that Sidlin's contract would not be renewed. Although board members never publicly provided a detailed explanation of their action, board president George M. Murchison hinted broadly at the time that it had to do with the conductor's apparent unwillingness to commit at least 50% of his time to Long Beach.

100 Days in City

Unlike Sidlin's, Falletta's contract requires her to spend at least 100 days a year in the city. To honor that, she says she plans to give up one of her three other orchestral affiliations, that of music director of the Queens Philharmonic in New York. In addition, she serves as director of the Denver Chamber Orchestra and of the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic in San Francisco.

A resident of New York with a degree from the Julliard School, Falletta, one of only a handful of successful women conductors in the country, was chosen for the Long Beach post from a field that initially included 250 applicants. Eventually the group was narrowed to five finalists, each of whom conducted the orchestra in a guest appearance during the 1988-89 season.

Falletta, whose first regular Long Beach concert is scheduled for Sept. 16, says she will maintain an apartment in the city but doesn't yet know whether her husband, a computer engineer based in New York, will move to the West Coast.

Meeting People

Last week, in her first visit to Long Beach since being named director in April, the soft-spoken maestro was in town hunting for an apartment and hobnobbing with orchestra administrators, patrons and would-be subscribers. The week culminated in the symphony association's annual meeting, at which Falletta delivered the keynote address outlining her four-pronged approach to taking the Long Beach Symphony into the future.

First, she explained in an interview earlier, she plans to maintain and improve the orchestra's artistic quality, which she says has earned the respect of musicians throughout the country.

Second, she said, she wants to "refine and polish" the niche occupied by the symphony in the cultural life of Southern California. Specifically, she said, she wants to begin performing music that isn't being performed elsewhere in the region, such as the lesser known works of such 19th- and 20th-Century European composers as Antonin Dvorak and Zoltan Kodaly. Third, she would like to begin emphasizing the works of younger, living American composers who need to have their work performed in order to advance in their artistic development. "Very often they are neglected," she said. "I feel that I have the responsibility of helping our culture take the next step forward by playing our own (composers) and letting them be heard."

Outreach Program

And finally, Falletta said, she would like to initiate a more aggressive outreach program aimed at attracting people who have never attended a symphony concert.

Specifically, she said, she intends to send more small musical ensembles out to perform at area schools, design multimedia programs tailored to the tastes of young professionals, appeal to the city's diverse ethnic groups and generally maintain a visible presence in the various communities in the area.

"If I go out and talk to them," she said, "they'll be willing to come to a concert."

At Leisure World, where she circled the entire room to shake hands with each of the 73 senior citizens, the personal approach seemed to be working.

"I think she's wonderful," said Dorothy Wenger, a retired nurse. "She looks so young. She has a warmth that would inspire anyone."

Said Priscilla Furjanic, whose late husband, Nick, was the symphony's first concertmaster: "She's got a sparkle. She's got some life to her."

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