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Conductor's mettle

JoAnn Falletta, who will lead the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in concerts this week, has built a strong reputation step by step.

August 18, 2003|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

No one is exactly telling JoAnn Falletta, "You've come a long way, baby," as the high-achieving conductor readies for her Hollywood Bowl debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Tuesday and Thursday.

In fact, the woman conductor who blazed the trail at the Bowl was Antonia Brico. In 1975, at age 73, she stood on the podium, skirt swaying in the breeze, and gave the downbeat, thereby reaching the apex of her career.

"She was a hero of mine," Falletta says on the phone from her home in Laurence Harbor, N.J. "Me, I'm no pioneer."

Falletta, it's true, is accustomed to being congratulated for her choice of profession -- one she recalls making at age 11.

"People say, 'Oh, you're so courageous,' setting out on this path," she says. "But I can't take that credit. It belongs to women like Brico and Sarah Caldwell," who, three decades ago, brought the Boston Opera to national attention.

What Falletta, 49, has that her skirt-wearing predecessors didn't is a career crammed full and built step by step -- she currently directs both the Buffalo (N.Y.) Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, putting in a 48-week year -- and a reputation for rescuing orchestras from the doldrums. The Long Beach Symphony, where she held forth for a decade until two years ago, is one of them.

Times critic Mark Swed calls her "very savvy," with "lots of what it takes to make a star conductor."

Falletta acknowledges that as a student at New York's Mannes College of Music, and later Juilliard, she received ample discouragement.

The reason?

"Tradition," she says. "People still go around with the idealized picture of an Arturo Toscanini, the conductor whose incredible temper could rage like a storm. His willfulness and tyrannical style wouldn't be tolerated today, though. His approach doesn't even exist anymore."

Still, star status has so far been conferred only on male conductors. And no woman, to date, has won a contract with any world-class orchestra. What if the name on the marquee were Joseph Falletta? What if Leonard Bernstein had been Lenore?

"I have to say I don't know," she says. "Because I can't see the other side of the equation."

But Falletta has encountered gallantry her male counterparts might not elicit. She tells about going to a first rehearsal with one ensemble very worried about how the players would respond to her.

"The oboist seemed unhappy. He scowled, turned his pages very aggressively. I was convinced he disliked me. At the break, he was waiting to speak to me, and I dreaded what would come next. But it was an apology. 'I am so upset that my reed will not work for me today because I wanted to play well for you,' he explained."

From Falletta's vantage, "being an American is a greater liability than being a woman." She cites Lorin Maazel, Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Slatkin as among the few American conductors who have overcome the widespread notion that an orchestra leader ought to have a European pedigree.

Anyone looking at her career to date can see that she has honed the skills that make a conductor attractive to audiences and boards of directors alike. Her Bowl program, for instance, which she and the Buffaloans performed on PBS, consists of that popular perennial, Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," and Mark O'Connor's "American Seasons" -- not only a feast of baroque and bluegrass but a canny ploy to attract new fans.

She says she routinely participates in outreach programs to schools and communities at large. She knows how to mediate between music and audiences, delivering appealing anecdotes about pieces she is about to conduct. Among her models was Bernstein, with whom she studied conducting at Juilliard. "Yes, he was flamboyantly theatrical, but all conductors have the capacity to be theatrical."

When Falletta strides on stage at the Bowl, unlike Antonia Brico on that summer night 28 years ago, she will be wearing pants ("as do audiences, including 90% of the women"). And she'll be firm in the conviction that there should be no impediment anymore to a woman's wielding a baton -- and doing it to great acclaim in the major leagues.

"Definitely," she says. "It's time for preconceptions to die. Yes. Sooner rather than later."

Music, maestra, please.


Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood

When: Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m.

Price: $1-$88

Contact: (323) 850-2000

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