Buffalo Philharmonic, Once Languishing, Has Come a Long Way

10.25.16
JoAnn Falletta
The New York Times

JoAnn Falletta, the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, stood outside Kleinhans Music Hall here at dusk one recent Saturday and pointed to the brick exterior, punctuated by a line of glass blocks.

“When I got here,” she said, “there was graffiti all over this, and the glass was broken.”

That was in the late 1990s, when many assumed that Buffalo and its orchestra were both pretty much finished. Declines in industry and population had decimated this once-thriving city and starved its largest classical music institution, founded in the mid-1930s with support from the federal Works Progress Administration.

“The board was tired out,” said Ms. Falletta, 62, who on Wednesday leads the orchestra of her alma mater, the Mannes School of Music, at Alice Tully Hall to begin a yearlong celebration of the school’s centennial.

“The city was tired out by the Philharmonic’s problems,” she added. “Every year they were running out of money, and it was ‘Save Our Symphony,’ ‘Save the Philharmonic.’ People didn’t give up on them, but they wanted to see that the Philharmonic could do it, could be viable.”

Nearly two decades later, the orchestra has proved its viability — as has the city, slowly yet steadily improving its fortunes, including a recent windfall in the form of the state’s Buffalo Billion Investment Development Plan. (That program has been shadowed, however, by questions about its economic impact and by pay-for-play allegations that recently ensnared the former chairman of the orchestra’s board.)
  
JoAnn Falletta, who has been music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999, leading a rehearsal at Kleinhans Music Hall. Credit Brendan Bannon for The New York Times  
 
Most hopeful, in a season marked by labor unrest at orchestras around the country — the Philadelphia Orchestra briefly went on strike in September, and major ensembles in Pittsburgh and Fort Worth remain out of work — the Buffalo musicians received permission from their union last month to sign an unusually long (six-year) contract, a sign of both trust and wariness.

“I really give the musicians credit for this,” Ms. Falletta said. “They’re happy and they know they have the responsibility. Pittsburgh is not far from us. One of our players went to Pittsburgh this year and hasn’t played a note. They’re aware of that, I think, and they don’t want that to happen here.”

In Ms. Falletta, the orchestra surely has one of the most devoted music directors in the country — and, when she was appointed, the first female conductor to lead a major American ensemble. Buffalo’s is not an enormous classical season, but guest conductors are still rare, since Ms. Falletta leads about two-thirds of the programs. (Last year, she extended her contract to 2021.)

During a recent rehearsal break, she found herself in a conversation about a work on the program with two of the musicians, so she took them onstage that evening as part of her preconcert talk to continue the discussion.

The cellist Monte Hoffman has been in the Philharmonic since 1964, playing under six music directors. “In terms of community spirit,” he said, “she’s more than all the others put together.”

Having recently released her 100th recording (a Stravinsky disc with the Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players), Ms. Falletta has cultivated a close relationship with the Naxos label. Taking advantage of the Buffalo orchestra’s beefy, red-blooded sound, she and the players have made an unlikely recording specialty of sumptuous late-Romantic rarities. (Florent Schmitt, anyone?) The regular studio work, she says, has raised the ensemble’s quality and made rehearsals more effective and efficient.

After all these years, she has an easy camaraderie with the players, a shared shorthand. “You know what I’m going to say about the downbeat of the second bar,” she said as they rehearsed Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. “So I’m not going to say it.”
 
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