Every season, Albany Symphony Orchestra music director David Alan Miller likes to invite a noted conductor to lead the orchestra to give his musicians another perspective. On Friday, JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, will lead the orchestra. It is her third time as guest.
“We’re old friends,” Falletta said from Cleveland, where she was conducting a youth orchestra. “David is very open-minded about having guests and what music to perform.”
Friday’s program is typical of their connection: It celebrates Valentine’s Day, so the music had to be romantic, but this year also honors the women’s suffrage movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, so there had to be a woman composer. And what about having two soloists — one from the ASO and one from Falletta’s own BPO?
So the program will be selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet; Albert Roussel’s “Bacchus et Ariane Suite”; and Dame Ethel Smyth’s Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra.
“The Prokofiev is very strong,” Falletta said. “He seemed to identify with Juliet. He treated her very tenderly. I put together two of his suites to follow the story through the trajectory of the tragedy. It’s a timeless story and has everything.”
Falletta and the BPO recently released a CD of the Prokofiev and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with pianist Fabio Bidini in a lush, live performance on the Beau Fleuve Records label (the BPO’s own label).
The Roussel work is new to the ASO.
“It may be a Greek myth. Bacchus falls in love with Ariadne and there’s wild dancing,” Falletta said. “It’s very different music. It’s fantastic music.”
Smyth (1858-1944) was a British composer and an early member of the British women’s suffragette movement. She was well-known to Brahms and Dvorak; she was the first woman to be given the honor of “Dame” in 1922; and her opera “The Wreckers” was the first opera written by a woman to be presented at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903, a record that stood until the 2000s.
“Smyth was a leading, fierce suffragette and a great composer,” Falletta said. “I had done her piece years ago when I’d lead the Women’s Philharmonic. It’s in the late romantic style. David was intrigued. It was a gesture of friendship that we’d have Jill Levy, the ASO concertmaster, and my principal horn, Jacek Muzyk, as soloists.”
Falletta knows what it’s like to be at the forefront: In 1991, she was the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, and currently celebrates her 20th year at the helm of the BPO, having recently renewed her five-year contract through 2026; she became the first American and first woman to be principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra (2011-2014) in Northern Ireland, where they produced six outstanding Naxos recordings; on a BPO tour of Poland in 2018, Falletta was the first woman to conduct at the prestigious Beethoven festival; and last year she was named APR’s Performance Today Classical Woman of the Year. Falletta is a multiple Grammy Award winner and a multiple ASCAP Adventurous Programming winner.
None of the success came easily.
“Being on the podium wasn’t so open to women, even in the ’80s or even 20 years ago,” she said. “It’s changed slowly. Slower than what I thought it would. Maybe because classical music is such a traditional art form. Austria and Germany were resistant. The musicians were uncomfortable with a woman on the podium. But they’ve become more relaxed. I conduct them very frequently now. Because conductors can’t develop except when we’re on the podium.”
That’s why Falletta loves to guest conduct, and especially conduct young musicians.
“Working with young people is very energizing. And it’s fun to guest. You learn a lot. Every orchestra plays differently and I bring that back to Buffalo.”
She’s especially looking forward to Friday.
“The ASO is the perfect American orchestra,” she said. “Their risk taking, their playing at such a high level. No one is doing that. What David has created is extraordinary.”
Albany Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
HOW MUCH: $62-$37
MORE INFO: www.albany
symphony.com; 518 694-3300