Eleven seasons ago, JoAnn Falletta, a young woman eager to make a name for herself in a then man's world, brought her ambitions to an orchestra--broke and dispirited--that desperately needed them. Saturday night she bid farewell as music director of the Long Beach Symphony in a program of orchestral showpieces impressively played and before an adoring audience that filled Terrace Theater.
Falletta moves up the ladder; she became music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in the fall. And the Long Beach Symphony moves on. Next season five guest conductors compete to be the next music director. They are strong and interesting candidates, and for good reason. Saturday's concert was an occasion of pride for a now fiscally and artistically healthy orchestra and its successful outgoing music director.
The mildly inventive program was designed, in part, to show how the orchestra has integrated itself into the community. In tribute to the Long Beach Art Museum, the program consisted of three flashy pieces from the 20th century that were inspired by painting. (Last year, to celebrate the city's new aquarium, Falletta conducted and recorded a program of water-inspired music.) But Falletta, who champions Americans, women and living composers, stuck with dead, white, European males this time (even though Americans are the most art-inspired of all composers, be they connected with Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism or Conceptual Art--and perhaps our greatest living American symphonist, Gloria Coates, is attuned to visual art). The program also steered clear of the kind of art to be found in Long Beach.
In the end, the program said little about the relationship of music to art, but it said plenty about what kind of orchestra Long Beach is now and who Falletta is. It allowed her to end with a blockbuster, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," in the familiar Ravel orchestration, as well as to bring forth two worthy triptychs, not exactly obscure, but not often heard live.
Respighi's "Trittico Botticelliano" is not unlike his popular triptychs of Roman scenes or of birds. Three famous Botticellis--"Spring," "Adoration of the Magi" and "Birth of Venus"--inspire shimmering trills and hints of early music in modern harmonies. The orchestration is lavish, and Falletta emphasized the sparkle.
In "Frescoes of Piero della Francesca," the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu was inspired by the somber glory of the celebrated frescoes "The Legend of the True Cross" in Arezzo, Italy, he visited in 1956. Oddly, though, this is music of contagious exuberance, intricately made, jazzy, splashed with color. Falletta's enthusiastic performance was big-boned, though details were lost in the liquid acoustic of the theater.
For "Pictures," Falletta played full-out for maximum effect. Not every solo was perfect: a contrabassoon overdid the emotion. But there was a sense of magnificence overall that celebrated an orchestra especially strong in its strings and brass and not afraid of demonstrating intense color or character.
These have been 11 very good years, and both conductor and orchestra seem in excellent shape for their next respective steps. But they weren't exactly a time for final goodbyes, tearful though Falletta was in accepting tribute. She returns for two programs next season, and, indeed, leads a more impressively climactic program a year from now with Mahler's Second Symphony. Even the outstanding co-principal cellist, John Walz, who retired from the orchestra Saturday after 20 years, will be back next season as soloist.