JoAnn Falletta is a regular contributor to Portfolio Magazine in Virginia and Traffic East Magazine in Buffalo, and has had articles published in Symphony Magazine, the New York Concert Review, NPR Music and The Virginian Pilot.
Cover: Detail, Concert Night
by Susan Crave Rosen
Love Letters to Music
by JoAnn Falletta
Message in a Bottle
To the audience
Music Could Not Stop a War
If Beethoven Were Emperor
by JoAnn Falletta
The Innovative Mosaic Of American Symphonies
In Troubled Times: The Case for the Arts
The Compleat Music Director
Are You Listening?
Music and the Mind
Love Letters to Music, a book of poems by JoAnn Falletta,
can be purchased from the Virginia Arts Festival
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The Compleat Music Director
© JoAnn Falletta
One of the most vivid memories of my days as a young conducting student at Juilliard is of an article lauding the mystique of a certain music director of one of the finest orchestras in our country. The maestro, the newspaper maintained, was so important and so private that he was never seen anywhere in the city except on the podium of his orchestra. Even when he left the concert hall after a performance he retreated to a favorite restaurant where a secluded table in the back room was provided for him, away from his throng of fans. The orchestra itself seemed rather proud of thisit meant, of course, that one had to purchase a concert ticket to enjoy even a glimpse of their charismatic conductor.
For my four conducting colleagues and myself, the description of the life of the maestro could not have been more dissimilar than that of our own harried existencesdealing with the scarcely concealed contempt of the Juilliard Conductors Orchestra, the scathing (and uncomfortably accurate) criticism of our teacher, the humiliation of cajoling, pleading and bribing our classmates into forming reluctant and disorganized groups over which we could wield our incipient batons. For myself, fifteen years and four music directorships later, the maestros enviable situation seems even further from reality than it did then.
I am convinced that no one leaves the conservatory with more than the sketchiest idea of the meaning of the title music director. To be honest, one scarcely knows how to conduct, in the real sensethe deepest musical understanding, analytical aptitude and psychological skills develop slowly as one studies, works and matures. But even the most profound grasp of a score, the most elegant technique hardly prepare the young maestro for the duties that descend upon his or her shoulders the moment the music director search committee reaches its decision. We acknowledge that the choice of a music director is probably one of the most significant decisions any orchestra will make; the thought that the chosen one may have little to no idea about the actual job is cause for some alarm.
We stand upon the gateway of a 21st century even the wildest visionary could not have imagined at the beginning of the 20th. It seems an appropriate time to acknowledge the extraordinary changes that the last hundred years have wrought in the arts. It certainly has been a period of extraordinary artistic innovation, mirroring rapid developments in science and technology. Composers have risen to the challenge of expressing our changing world, creating new and complex works that reflect life in this century. The last hundred years have been a time of unprecedented social and political upheaval. Once again, composers have responded with works that mirror the dreams and the terrors of contemporary life. In this time of rapid and unpredictable change in the arts, it is no surprise that the music director entering the 21st century bears markedly different responsibilities than did his 19th century predecessor.
Across the country, symphony orchestras are facing what appear to be the most difficult times in their collective history. Often the very survival of the institution will hinge on the skill of the maestronot only his musical talent, but his leadership ability, interpersonal communication and management acumen in planning, scheduling, interacting with staff and musicians, dealing with conflict and fostering feelings of solidarity, community and common purpose. Added requirements are a broad artistic vision, a clear understanding of the musical objectives of the organization, and the courage to explore new possibilities and options coupled with the wisdom to preserve the best of tradition. Some of you may recall candidate Eugene McCarthys response to a 1968 query as to whether he was qualified to be President of the United Stateshe replied that when you got right down to it, probably nobody was qualified. The same might be said for the music director at the beginning of the 21st Century. Probably no one has the complete set of skills the job demands. But a solid understanding of the responsibilities of the position can and should help music directors develop their personal resources within the framework of each ones unique talents, personality and charisma.
The single most important truth for the music director to remember is that any orchestras personality grows out of its musicians. They have the longest tenure of any facet of the organization. The value of the music grows out of the lives of those musicianstheir set of cultural and social values, their communities, their interests, their ideals, their hopes for the orchestra. The conductor should embrace this musical mosaic of extraordinary people with an overarching artistic philosophy. That philosophy can be as simpleand as profoundas creating a situation that allows room for excellence to thrive. More specifically, that philosophy should engender an environment in which musicians are motivated and inspired to achieve individual artistic satisfaction through their commitment to their orchestra and to their community.
The responsibility for a vibrant philosophy rests largely upon the music director and his skills. Of these, the most importantmusical talentremains the most mysterious and least quantifiable commodity in terms of a conductor. Certainly, even an unsophisticated audience can surmise that the violin soloist has poor intonation or that the pianist is having difficulty with the technical demands of a concerto. Can most audience members assess the skill of the maestro? Does a flamboyant podium presence equate to a prodigious talent? Does conducting from memory insure deep musical understanding? Do exaggerated tempos and dynamic changes imply a unique and revelatory interpretation? The true assessment of a maestros musical skill often rests with the musicians over which he presides. Can they play comfortably and expressively, feeling neither confined nor abandoned? Perhaps the ideal performance situation is one in which each musician can feel free to play as if on his own, yet enjoy all the while the comfort of the framework of an interpretation that makes complete musical sense. In such an ideal performance the audience senses (rather than defines) a rightness about the experiencea subconscious structure, a pacing, a unified artistic conception, an inevitability that create a depth and excitement that go beyond the surface level. Certainly that ideal situation is far from commonplace. The musical understandingindeed, the life understanding that it presupposes are the goals to which conductors should aspire all their musical lives. The deeper and broader an individuals background, the richer and more profoundly evident are both the specific, unique qualities of his work and its greater significance. Leonard Bernstein once stated that any composers writing is the sum of himself, all his roots and all his influences. The same is true of the work of any conductor. The value of his music grows out of the very life of the artist himself, his own particular set of cultural and social values, the community in which he lives, the nation to which he belongs. The conductor must make his art an expression of his inner and outer world, and dedicate his life to the enrichment of both. Any conductor who does not fully devote himself to the constant development of his musical understanding is failing to recognize the single most significant requirement of his profession.
Secondary to the depth of ones musical aptitude is the communication of that knowledgeto orchestra, to audience and to community. The technical and personal communication skills required on the podium are enormousand completely individual. The often mentioned but little understood concepts of charisma and chemistry enter in the questionand it is acknowledged that not every conductor works equally well with every ensemble. Hopefully, the music director establishes a productive working relationship with his own orchestraa relationship based on mutual respect, trust and a desire to foster what is best in the organization. He or she is called upon to make extraordinarily difficult personnel decisions, to inspire one hundred diverse personalities, and to conduct Bach and Varese with equal aplomb! The only hope for success, I am certain, is for the conductor to be completely himself on the podiumwhether humorous, dignified, intense, energetic, tranquil or otherwise. Integrity seems to be the one characteristic that no orchestral ensemble is willing to overlook. Styleas long as it is based on sinceritycan and should be as different as each maestro is to the next.
One of the most telling reflections of the music directors vision and personality lies in the choice of repertoire for the orchestra. Other factors may influence the final shape of the symphonys programming, but the music director ultimately bears the overall responsibility for the complexion and texture of the seasons offerings. Are the choices simply the pieces the conductor would like to perform? Or do they truly reflect a certain character, mission or vision? As much as they might be somewhat constrained by financial limitations, choices should, at the core, be artistically motivated. What repertoire will help the orchestra develop, grow, challenge itself, stretch stylistically? It need not be the repertoire with the largest demands: a good performance a Mozart symphony, for example, is much harder to achieve than one of Orffs Carmina Burana. A balance should be struck in presenting repertoire from all periods, and a sense of overall logic and motivation behind the repertoire choices is critical. Selections should support and complement the expressed objectives of the orchestra and, in the long run, contribute to the vitality and vibrancy of the organization. In addition, music directors must seek the reintegration of the living composer into society at large. The orchestra exists not only as a beautiful reflection of a musical past but as an unerring mirror of current society. A living, breathing, dynamic institution, the symphony is constantly developing exciting repertoire. If we succumb to the suggestion that we should only perform music written between 1750 and 1900, are we not invalidating ourselves as an institutionand as a culture? Certainly music directors should not embrace new music indiscriminately. The half-hearted performance of a new work can drastically weaken the case for an ongoing repertoire. But would it not be possible for each music director to find a handful of living composers whose work speaks to him or her personallyand to champion these voices? Aaron Copland told us that our country will only achieve a true artistic maturity when the composer feels himself affirmed and buoyed by his community, when living music means something, in the deepest sense, to everyone. The music director can help the orchestra and its community celebrate the privilege of experiencing and appreciating music of all timesthrough thoughtful selection, inclusive presentation and most of all, committed and vivid performance.
Often the conductor becomes the fulcrum around which swirls the conflict of balancing artistic goals with monetary considerations. I am convinced that in times of financial challenge the artistic integrity and vision must be even more clearly defined and upheld. The goal of any orchestra is to serve the needs of its community. To accomplish this, the music director must strive to forge a strong community within the orchestra family, fostering the concept of artistic integrity as a shared vision. No music director, whether he spends 8 or 48 weeks with his orchestra, can abdicate his responsibility to uphold the highest musical standards. We cannot always create an ideal situation. But through creativity and plain hard work we can create an environment in which artistic achievement can flourish. Does artistic achievement necessarily equate to expense? I dont believe so. But it does equate to hours and weeks and months of planning, of prioritizing, of refining and polishing a vision for the organization. Artistic integrity is not about playing the largest pieces in the repertoire. It is not about featuring the most expensive soloists; it is not about having the greatest number of string players. Artistic integrity as music director is helping to release the vibrant energy within each player, enabling each musician to achieve his or her musical best. Artistic integrity is recognizing that orchestras do not develop through the splashy applause of concert nights. Rather, orchestras develop slowlythrough every valuable minute of rehearsal, through every score we choose, through every audition we hold. The music director must build artistic integrity into all the little bits and pieces of the orchestras activity. That attitude, that search for excellence does not necessarily cost more financially but it does cost in time, work, commitment, dedication, cooperation and communication. The return, both individually and collectively, is beyond any price.
It is the rare conductor who has significant marketing or development experience when he accepts his position with the orchestra. Even rarer is the music director who will not spend, over the course of his tenure, countless hours with his experts in those fields, analyzing, fund-raising, reaching out to his community constituency. The details of this commitment are myriadfrom the creation of special programs or festivals, pre- or post-concert discussions, speaking at countless civic groups, design and implementation of educational activities, media visibility and cooperation, to active involvement in grant writing and corporate and individual fundraising. It is only through a vital artistic partnership with the community can the maestro hope to make the symphony a vibrant thread in the tapestry of life there.
The conductor must have the courage to rethink widely held assumptions. We may not know what the concert hall of 2050 will be like. But all of us have faith in the serious investigation of our art, of musical sound. As our organizations undergo striking metamorphoses, they will look to the music director for leadershipfor artistic ability, honesty, vision, creativity, communication, energy, sense of mission, collaboration, and total involvement. In extraordinary times, it is extraordinary action which makes the difference. The 21st century is not a time for maintenance of the status quo, but rather the time to make a decisive and focused commitment to the values which are at the core of our art. To do any less would be to leave our orchestral world defenseless to those who perceive the arts as trivial and non-essential. The music director of the 21st Century must be a teacher in the purest sensea teacher who has internalized his art so completely that its manifestation becomes the persona of the artist. As a leader and a communicator, the conductor must present an artistic endeavor with an energy that is as inspiring and compelling as the art form itself.
As an artist in a pluralistic, competitive society, the music director cannot afford to remain aloof from his audience. He or she must be involved, not only in raising dollars, but in raising consciousness. As performing artists we share a fundamental belief that there is a significant community with an appetite for our art, a discriminating, renewable public. The alarming reality is that this audience of appreciative listeners is at risk. If we are not careful, we will find that we have been diligently trained to answer a question that is no longer being asked.
In times of financial and social challenge for our orchestras, is there truly a valid place for the enigmatic maestro of my Juilliard memory? Is it not imperative for the music director to communicate through every possible means the belief that music is an integral part of our lives and of our community? We stand on the threshold of a new millennium, a temporal landmark holding tremendous metaphorical and spiritual significance. As we move forward, the most exciting development for the 21st Century seems not to be technological advancement, but rather an expanding concept of what it means to be a human being. The music director and his orchestra can eloquently and passionately articulate the conviction that music is at the core of the continual reinvigoration of the human spirit.
Are You Listening?
© JoAnn Falletta
In a society in which we are continually besieged with visual stimulation, assaulted with noise of all forms, battered with an unceasing stream of sensory overload from a myriad of sources, why should we go to a concert? What real and vital place in our lives does a Mozart concerto, an Elgar symphony or a Debussy tone poem hold? Has our world progressed beyond the point where classical music can communicate something uniquely precious to us?
Life in 2000 revolves ever-increasingly around our sense of sight. Products are sold through visual stimulation, classes are taught with more and more reliance on visual aids, and entertainment options are sight-oriented to an ever greater degree. Even in terms of musical enjoyment tapes and CDs seem not to be sufficientvideo discs are fast gaining in popularity. Have we forgotten how to listen?
A century ago, a concert was a very different experience than what we have come to expect. Listeners were disappointed if the duration of a concert was less than three hours, and performances of four hours or more were not uncommon. Some may remember that even a scant three or four decades ago, many a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon were contentedly spent in listeningjust listeningto the radio. Could many people today spend three hours listening to a symphony broadcast or to an opera on CD without reading, or working, or supplementing the experience in some other way? Has progress robbed us of our ability to have a satisfying, purely aural experience?
The problem of good listening is a complex one. Part of it lies in the fact that we live in an world that has a much higher ambient decibel level than the environment of our ancestors. We have become so accustomed to this fact that we scarcely notice that we are surrounded by a constant din of sound waves. Can you hear it? If you are like most of us, you cannot.
Yet I am convinced that a time traveler catapulted from 2000 into the year 1200 would be amazed first by the incredible, wonderful quiet of a pre-machinery age. On the other hand, the unfortunate medieval peasant who found himself in any large city today might easily lose his hearing from the shock of the suddenly increased decibel level. Bombarded with noise pollution as we are, it is small wonder that we are not accustomed to sheer, unadulterated, intensive listening..
Another aspect of the problem lies in the fact that the progress of our communications technology has made that most wonderful of aural experiencesthe enjoyment of musicalmost too accessible. In the past, a concert or a broadcast was a special experience, one to be anticipated, relished and remembered. A musical event was exactly thatan event - unaccompanied by other trappings.
Today, we can hardly escape from the music that has become a background noise to every other aspect of our lives. In elevators, in stores, in cars, in office buildings, at the dentist, our ears are never free from a continuous stream of music specifically designed to be nondescript. As a result, we have become desensitized to that most wonderful of art forms.
The very nature of music contributes to this dilemma. Music is the only art form that exist completely in time. Visual art, once created, is fixed and unchanging. We can study Van Goghs Starry Night, for example, at our leisure, assimilating it at our own pace. This is not the case with music, however. Once a series of notes has passed by our ears, they are gone. If weve missed the melody, or a beautiful harmonic transition, or a shimmering blend of instrumental color, the moment is lost until the next performance. And since all these moments are inextricably connected and interwoven, our inability to listen may mean that weve missed the overall shape of the piece.
This quality of tenuous evanescence, of exquisite fragility, of fleeting impermanence is part of what makes music so special. Should we be content to deny ourselves an experience that can deeply enrich us because our noisy world has taught us not to listen?
Our ears are the most flexible, the least limiting of all our senses. They require no education, no training, no special talent to communicate to our brains a uniquely personal interpretation of the sound waves that set them resonating. Every listener brings his or her own life experience and personality to a concert, and the aural communication of sound to brain is an intensely individual one. This experience, too subtle and subconscious to be expressed verbally, is unique to each of us; one listeners personal emotional reaction to a Beethoven symphony, for example, can never be exactly duplicated by any other human being.
All of us have the necessary gift to be able to appreciate good music: our humanness. As living, breathing men and women we possess everything we need to understand music fully, to relish an experience that can be immensely ennobling and enriching. If we can open our ears and listen, we are the heirs to an art that can move us, can touch us, can deepen our humanity as nothing in our lives can.
Music and the Mind
© JoAnn Falletta
We are living in remarkable times, in a period perhaps unprecedented in human history. Not only are these times of difficulty and challenge, but they are times that present extraordinary opportunity.
In some ways we seem to be at an auspicious turning point in human history. Who will shape the direction humanity will take? Who will create the future? Much of it will fall to the next generation, the young people in our midst everyday. But how will we prepare this next generation for that overwhelming responsibility, for the enlightened vision needed to guide the direction of the future?
In the recent past, a number of reports examining the level of excellence in education in the United States have been published, sharing important evaluations of the quality of education in this country. In terms of education we are, quite simply, a nation at risk. Reports state that the educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our future as a nation and as a people. Although these reports are mainly concerned with evidence that young people are not fully trained to perform basic skills, many of them addressed the importance of art in education, raising an issue that has been dear to my heart : that music and art are imperative to the education of all. I firmly believe that music and art are at the center of the human psyche, the surest road to knowing ourselves and to understanding the world around us.
The reports raise the alarming fact that in not providing arts education, we are no longer nurturing the creativity of young people. Creativity is key to our futureand that beautiful, personal gift of all human beings is often stifled. Childrenwho are born with an extraordinary curiosity, who hate to go to sleep at night because being awake is such a wonderful adventure, whose artistic and literary creations are so filled with imagination and dimensiongrow increasingly more concerned with approval and become less poetic, more analytic, more predictable. Somehow we turn their art into homework ; their imagination into routine.
The non-nurturing of creativity is a true crisis, one of the most serious concerns facing us. If problems facing our world are to be solved, they will be solved by creative people with creative ideas. If we are going to make advances in medicine, psychology, physical science and technology, these discoveries will be made, as well, by creative people. If we are ever to allow a golden age to flower through its art and music and literature, this too will be brought about by creative people.
How can we nurture what is truly our most precious resource: the creativity of the human being?
Anthropologists and historians have studied a great number of societies. Before the 20th century, virtually every society they have analyzed has placed at the center of its priorities music, art and religious experience. The only way we know many of these past cultures is through the beautiful and telling remnants of their artistic life.
What happened in the 20th century? What is happening in our own society? And, most important, how can we nurture the creative process to rectify our skewed priorities? I feel strongly that music holds the key to that process, that reclaiming of creativity.
Recent research about the structure of the brain and nervous system and their relationship to music has yielded astounding results. Different aspects of musictone, pitch, melody and rhythmare processed in different parts of the brain, making music one of the most complex experiences the brain encounters. Practicing an instrument actually triggers physical changes in the brain. Intensive practicing of an instrument leads to a discernable enlargement of parts of the cerebral cortex, the layer of gray matter closely associated with higher brain function. Many of the worlds doctors, scientists and mathematicians have played musical instruments since childhood.
Let me use Albert Einstein as an example. As he would often explain, his music was in some ways an extension of his thinking process, a method of allowing the subconscious to solve particularly difficult problems. Einsteins son remembered that whenever his father felt that he had become ensnared in an especially daunting problem or situation in his work, he would take refuge in his music. This, he found, would usually resolve all difficulties.
Albert Einsteins wife shared an especially interesting memory. The Doctor (as she referred to Einstein in public) came down in his dressing gown as usual for breakfast but he hardly touched a thing. I thought something was wrong, so I asked him what was troubling him. Darling, he said, I have a wonderful idea. And after drinking his coffee, he went to the piano and started playing. Now and again he would stop, make a few notes and report: Ive got a wonderful idea, a marvelous idea. I said: then for goodness sake tell me, dont keep me in suspense. He said: its difficult; I still must work it out. Mrs. Einstein told us that Einstein continued playing the piano and making notes, then went upstairs to his study, remaining there for two weeks. Every day she sent up his meals, and every evening he would come downstairs, play the piano, and then return to his work. Eventually, Mrs. Einstein said, he came down from his study looking very pale. Thats it, he told her, wearily putting two sheets of paper on the table. And that was the theory of relativity.
My personal experience with Nobel Laureate Dr. Herbert Hauptmann was also very telling. I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Hauptmann during a panel discussion concerning the nature of creativity. After the session, he spoke to me privately about an experience he had had that he had found interesting and rather mystifying. He had been struggling with a very difficult problem without much success, and, feeling discouraged, had decided to set his studies aside for the day and return home. While driving, he switched on the radio to the classical station, and listened with pleasure to Bachs sixth Brandenburg Concerto. When he arrived home, he sat for a while in his car to be able to finish listening. When the piece ended, Dr. Hauptmann told me that he suddenly realized that he had unlocked the answer to his puzzle. It subsequently took him 17 hours to write it out in full, yet at that moment he knew that he had found the path to the solution.
On a more mundane level, research conducted at the University of California at Irvine has shown that exposure to musicsimply listening to musicactually enhanced intellectual ability. Not only did listening to Mozart improve test performance, but young people who study piano were found to perform better in science and math than their counterparts who dont.
Why should this be so? One obvious reason is that both scientists and artists are creative individuals who must learn to pay close attentionboth to detail and to the broader context. Scientists, like artists, are people who notice things. They not only see things that other people ignore, they frequently can discern hidden links among disparate aspects of reality.
Studying music helps put things in context, sharpen details, hone observations. It sorts the essential from the peripheral, forges connections, finds patterns and discovers new ways of seeing familiar thingsexactly the tools any creative person needs.
I remember that when I was about to receive my masters degree, our college was visited by a number of computer companies, recruiting musicians for high-level training in computer science. Why would they seek musicians, most of whom knew nothing about computers? The simple and powerful reason is that musicians are trained to be problem solvers, to work diligently at solutions, to understand one of the most fundamental lessons of lifethat things that are worthwhile take time, energy, patience and dedication. Those personal skills were exactly the traits sought by computer science firms.
The age of instant gratification in which we find ourselves does not foster creativity. The myriad of options for entertainment is not conducive to the very important lessons of hard work and dedication. But music does teach those skills. I find that those young people in the school band or orchestras are most often the ones on the honor roll, on the student council, on the deans list. Why? I am certain it is because music has taught them the skills that help them succeed at all their endeavorscooperation, discipline, respect for themselves and for others, dedication, and the value of hard work. Best of all, those lessons are learned within a context of great joy. There are frankly few things as inspiring as the satisfaction and happiness on the faces of young musicians after performing.
This leads to the aspect of our emotional response to musicas players or listeners. We know that music can affect levels of various hormones such as cortisol, testosterone, and oxytocin and can trigger the release of endorphins, the bodys natural opiates. Using PET scanners, scientists have shown that the parts of the brain involved in processing emotion light up with activity when a subject hears music.
We have just begun to scratch the surface of the mystery of music and the brain. I am certainly not a scientist, but I absolutely believe that music can have a tremendously beneficial affect on life and on learning. Music changes us. It allows us to discover parts of ourselves we have not discovered before. It can transform us. It can nurture and stimulate all aspects of creativity. And, at a time when the very survival of the human race seems threatened, few things could be more important than nurturing creativity, humanity and appreciation for beauty. I believe that children who learn to appreciate beauty will never destroy it.
I often tell parents that music education is one of the single greatest gifts they can give their children. A music education encourages high achievement, fosters a suppleness of mind, a tolerance for ambiguity, a appreciation for nuance. It helps us to think and work across traditional disciplines, to integrate knowledge in unique ways. It teaches us to work cooperatively. It builds an understanding of diversity and the multi-cultural dimensions of our world.
Music can help us to truly understand the concepts of quality, excellence and beauty. As the only art form existing solely in time, music is the least limiting. Sibelius said music begins where words end, and that sense of wordless communication is powerful. Listening to music offers a tremendous personal freedom. Every persons response to music is unique and irreplicable, drawing from each persons entire life experience and deepening it.
So often we cannot express our reaction to music in wordsthe experience seems somehow beyond that. But we have been moved, touched, changed at the core our beingwe have taken a step on our voyage of self-discovery.
Technology hurtles us forward at ever increasingly dizzying speeds. But the soul, silent pilgrim that it is, trudges forward slowly, never willing to be hurried. That quiet, slow journey is how we will know ourselves. It is as if there is an internal landscape, a geography of the soulthe map of ourselves. We will search for its outlines all of our lives. I believe that music can be the extraordinary vessel that transports us on that continuing journey of exploration.