She knows what her last number will be. The sly smile on JoAnn Falletta’s face makes that clear.
But she’s not telling.
She has been the music director for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra for 27 years, far longer than any of her 10 predecessors. This spring she announced that she would step down in June 2020, getting the symphony through its centennial and giving the board ample time to find her successor.
So as she enters her last two seasons conducting the Virginia Symphony, has she compiled a bucket list of pieces she wants to perform before she leaves?
She shakes her head and vows that she just wants to fill the next two years with wonderful music.
“I’m just approaching it as a joyful accomplishment,” Falletta says.
The 2018-19 season, her penultimate, begins next weekend with Mussorgsky’s elegiac “Pictures at An Exhibition” (at the Ferguson Center in Newport News on Friday, Chrysler Hall in Norfolk on Saturday, and the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach on Sunday). The season will continue with selections by Beethoven and Ravel, Mozart and Mahler, as well as forays into Broadway, Gershwin, and Simon and Garfunkel.
She hasn’t thought yet about what she’d like the 2019-20 season to feature, other than that final piece that she’s already chosen. She doesn’t feel as though there’s any unfinished business.
“In 27 years I’ve done just about everything, so right now I’m taking it in little parts, one concert at a time,” Falletta says. “There’s sadness sometimes, just a little. We’re opening with ‘Pictures at an Exhibition.’ It’s my last time to do that.
“But I’ve done so many things, and the board has allowed me to do them. The musicians play so well that I’ve never been in a position of having to say, ‘That’s too difficult a piece.’ If I wanted to do it, we did — Stravinsky, ‘Rite of Spring.’ I’m so deeply satisfied with the musical adventure I’ve had here.”
A native New Yorker and the daughter of Italian immigrants, she received a classical guitar for her seventh birthday. Her father, partial to Strauss waltzes, wanted his children to grow up with music. He never envisioned that this birthday gift would determine his daughter’s career choice, but today at age 64, Falletta says, “I never thought about myself other than as a musician after that day.”
Another childhood memory, equally vivid and transformative: Going to Carnegie Hall with her parents to see the great Leopold Stokowskiconducting his American Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s No. 6.
“I was watching the musicians, and they were so involved, so intense,” Falletta recalls. “They were working hard, but they loved what they were doing. It was unbelievable to me. And that man in the middle … he helped make the music come to life.”
She went to New York’s Mannes College of Music as a guitar student but very quickly began conducting. Though there was little opportunity for female conductors at that time, she pursued that field of study as a graduate student at Queens College and Julliard.
Throughout the late 1970s and the ‘80s, she conducted smaller orchestras all on both coasts and in between. She became the music director of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra in 1989, and two years later was hired in Virginia.
Her audition piece was Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and she still gets reflective whenever she hears it. That was the first of many moments with the Virginia Symphony that she describes as unforgettable.
“If I had to pick one greatest night of my life,” she says, “it would be April 15, 1997.”
That was her first time conducting at Carnegie Hall, where she was first inspired by the sight of Stokowsky wielding the baton.
“We were a relatively small-budget orchestra, playing in this hall where the Berlin Philharmonic played, and the New York Philharmonic,” she says. “The Philadelphia orchestra had played there the night before, and there was the feeling of ‘What are we doing here?’ But I looked at the musicians and said, ‘We’re ready.’ They all looked terrified. I must’ve looked terrified too, but I tried to look confident.”
They played Elgar that night, “Variations on an Original Theme,” and they brought down the house. A review in the New York Times called it “a remarkable performance.” The New York Concert Review publication praised the orchestra for its “heartwarming esprit and elegant virtuosity.”
Falletta did not have to wait for those reviews. She knew what her symphony had accomplished.
“We all knew at the end that we had risen to the top level,” she says. “We took that nervousness and excitement and used it in a positive way. I can still hear that final chord, and remember what it felt like to know that we had done something that was not repeatable.”
Looking back over 27 years, Falletta marvels at the pieces she has been able to conduct. She gushes praise for her musicians and for the board that oversees the orchestra, and for the loyal patrons who come back time and again to experience these performances.
“I’ve done a lot here, and I’ve learned a lot,” she says. “This was my first full-time job conducting an orchestra, and it felt like such a great responsibility to me. The musicians were such wonderful teachers for me, even if they didn’t realize they were teachers. Everything about how they reacted to me, it taught me to be a better conductor.”
What other conductor, she asks rhetorically, has been able to do so many different pieces in one place? All of the Mahler symphonies. The Berlioz Requiem and the Bernstein Mass.
It is that gratitude that led her to give the board a full two years notice when she decided to leave. She thought about stepping down two years ago, after an even quarter-century, but she didn’t want to leave just as the symphony was starting a major fundraising drive. So she focused on 2020, one century after the original Norfolk Civic Symphony Orchestra was founded.
She didn’t want her departure to “feel like an ending,” and she felt like the lengthy transitional period would be more “seamless and celebratory.”
Mike McClellan, the symphony board member who is chairing the search for her successor, says the board is looking first and foremost for musical excellence and a sense of leadership.
“We want someone transformative — somebody who in terms of programming and initiatives will help us grown our audience,” McClellan says. “There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people in our community who love classical music. And there’s an even bigger number of people who love music as a whole. Our job is to reach that broader audience without losing the cornerstone of what we do. So we are looking for someone to engage that larger audience as we’re well into the 21st century.”
McClellan carefully avoids the word “replace.” He stresses that the board is looking for the person who will follow Falletta, or succeed her.
“When you say ‘replace,’ it sounds like you’re replacing them with the same person,” he says. “There’s no way to replace an institution like JoAnn. This is a succession. Change is always a little bit frightening, but it can also be exciting.”
Just as McClellan avoids the word “replace,” Falletta herself avoids the word “retire.” She isn’t retiring. Her contract as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra runs through 2021, and she figures she will still do guest performances in the U.S. and Europe.
“I can’t imagine not conducting,” she says, “as long as I feel healthy enough to do it.”
She still has two more years to feel that rush of adrenaline here in Virginia.
After 27 years, she has a set routine. She likes to take a nap in the afternoon before a performance. A late lunch, so she can skip dinner. Some quiet time in her dressing room leading up to the concert.
And then the magic.
“Backstage is so absolutely black — midnight black,” she says. “And then they open that door and you walk out, and the light is blinding. It’s glorious. It’s sensory overload. You’re hit by this beautiful light, and the sound of applause, and you see the orchestra. It’s a joyful, powerful moment.
“Maybe that’s what you need to get that switch turned on and say, ‘Yes!’ I will never get tired of that feeling of switching something on in that moment.”
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
The Virginia Symphony Orchestra begins its season with “Pictures at an Exhibition” on Friday at the Ferguson Center in Newport News, on Saturday at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, and next Sunday at the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach. For information, schedules and tickets, go online to virginiasymphony.org or call 757-892-6366.
Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479 or on Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.