By Kathryn Radeff
Cover Photo by Cheryl Gorski


“One of the finest conductors of her generation,” is one of the phrases used to refer to Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director JoAnn Falletta. An astonishing performer with a magnetic smile, robust energy, an incisive technique, and plenty of emotion, she stirs crowds to standing ovations.

Decades ago, in what was once a traditionally male-dominated world, women conductors were fairly uncommon. Now, there is a whole new world of artistic expression for women who are gaining acceptance, judged by capabilities and not gender. As a former conductor of the Women’s Orchestra, based in San Francisco that specialized in performing music written by women, Falletta has certainly proven herself as “one of the most impressive, musically intelligent and professional conductors.” Today, she is being acclaimed as an “exciting young conductor,” and “one of the brightest stars of symphonic music in America.”

During the years, Falletta has conducted many orchestras, but it was a special thrill when she became the first woman in its 200-year history to conduct the Mannheim Orchestra in Germany.

“It’s one of the most prestigious orchestras with a wonderful history, and it was an orchestra that was just opening up to women,” says Falletta.

“I think the image of a conductor in the past was one of an autocrat, someone who would hire and fire people at will, yell at people and throw temper tantrums. That kind of leadership from a woman was not really comfortable in the past. Today, of course, conductors work in a different way. We’re not generally like that anymore and I think the door has opened up for women. In the past it was much more of a tyrannical image that a conductor had and that didn’t really fit with women. The field is changing slowly and I think we’ll see more women in the future.”

Falletta was born in New York City to a family of “great music lovers.” She says her parents, John and Mary Falletta, were not musicians, but opened the door for her musical experience by frequently taking her to concerts.

“I think it was basically being at concerts that really cemented my love of music,” she says. “I fell in love with the symphony orchestra and with the idea of people playing together, making music together. That was, to me, magical. I think that was my major influence.”

Still, she says, “as worried as my parents were about a professional musician career, they believed in me and were very, very supportive. My husband, Robert, who is also a wonderful musician, has always been there for me.”

At the age of seven, Falletta started studying music. Through the years her talent blossomed. “I always new I was going to be a musician,” she recalls. “I guess it was one of those things that just resonated with me immediately. Frankly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as a musician. I just knew it was for me.” She had started out as a classical guitarist and also learned cello and piano. “But my true passion was always conducting.”

Her first instrument was a classical guitar. “That instrument,” she adds, “has remained very close to me.”

A woman of many gifts, including writing, Falletta received her undergraduate degree from Mannes College of Music and her Master’s and doctorate degrees from The Juilliard School of Music where she studied with such musical legends as Leonard Bernstein. “He would come to Juillard and give master classes,” she explains. “As an aspiring conductor, and a conductor I found him very inspiring. He was the best known, the most beloved, the most American of American musicians. As I started to study, especially conducting, my teachers became the chief influences in my life.”

As a writer, she has written poems and essays as well as contributed articles to such magazines as Symphony, the New York Concert Review, the Virginian Pilot, Portfolio, and Traffic East.

An effervescent and exuberant figure on the podium, Falletta has been praised by the Washington Post as having “Toscanini’s tight control over ensemble, Walter’s affectionate balancing of inner voices, Stokowski’s gutsy showmanship, and a controlled frenzy worthy of Bernstein.”

Falletta is hailed as an outstanding musician – not only because of her ability to conduct, but also because of the power of her personality and her passion to communicate through music.

As a champion of contemporary music, she is in great demand as a guest conductor, performing with many of the world’s finest symphony orchestras across the United States. Internationally, she has wowed audiences in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America, also performing with the London Symphony and China’s Central Philharmonic.

A leading authority on orchestral repertoire and a champion of contemporary music, she has performed over 300 works by American composers, including over 70 world premieres. She has also received numerous prestigious awards for creative and adventurous programming.

“We are constantly rediscovering new works, so I always believe in mixing in the unfamiliar with the familiar, the old and the new, and that to me is what makes a good program, something that’s very electric,” Falletta explains. “That’s been my mantra.”

Her growing discography includes almost 40 titles, including her most recent recording, an August 2005 release on the Naxos label of the music of composer Kenneth Fuchs—whom she had been friends with since their days at the Juilliard School—with the Lyndon Symphony.

Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since l999, follows such distinguished conductors as Lukas Foss and Michael Tilson-Thomas. A strong advocate for cultural partnerships and community involvement, she embodies not just the city’s arts, but also its aspirations and its heart. Along with her post here in Buffalo, Falletta serves as Music Director of the Virginia Symphony, and the Artistic Advisor to the Honolulu Symphony.

In 2001, she was recognized as Buffalo’s most influential community leader, and also a recipient of the 16th Annual 2002 Arts Award presented by the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The award is dedicated to “enhancing the cultural life of Western New York,” and presented to individuals who have given “outstanding contribution of time, talent and enthusiasm” on behalf of the cultural community.

It’s all about passion. That’s what has taken Falletta from a classical guitarist to living the life she had dreamed. “Music is such a thrilling experience,” she says. “Even when the music is very serious and everyone is working very hard. There is something about the energy force, the tremendous sense of energy and commitment that you get from the musicians. It’s a thrilling feeling, being in the middle of all that commitment and dedication. Frankly, it’s very beautiful.”

On February 16, Falletta leads the BPO on stage at Shea’s Performing Arts Center for a concert commemorating Shea’s 80th anniversary. It will be the first performance in the theater by the BPO, now in its 70th season.

“The Buffalo Philharmonic is pleased to help celebrate this important anniversary for Shea's, which like our own home, Kleinhans Music Hall, has helped to define and enoble our city through the performing arts,” says Falletta. “Between 80 years of performances at this magnificent landmark theater and 70 years of BPO concerts, the impact on our community has been monumental. Furthermore, we know these partnerships and collaborations can only strengthen our arts community as we look to the future.”


Jo Ann Falletta
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Jo Ann Falletta
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Jo Ann Falletta
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Jo Ann Falletta
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Jo Ann Falletta
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Jo Ann Falletta
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Shea's Buffalo
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  The History of
Shea's Performing Arts Center, a National Historic Site, celebrates its 80th Anniversary.
Photo by Jim Bush
In the early history of Buffalo, Main Street was thriving. There were six movie theaters located downtown and numerous other attractions. The most elaborate palace, however, was the grand Shea’s Buffalo Theater, built by theater entrepreneur Michael Shea and designed by architects C.W. and George L. Rapp at a cost of $2 million. Shea, born in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, had “an astonishing flair for picking what the public liked.”

The interior with molded plasterwork on the walls and vaulted ceilings were patterned after the great opera houses in Europe, designed by Marshall Field of Chicago and Tiffany Studios in New York City. A giant Wurlitzer organ was also installed. In l929, the elegant theater opened. Not only did audiences see a first-run movie, but they were treated to an overture played by the house orchestra, solo performances on the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ – today considered one of the top four theater organs in the nation – and a spectacular live stage show. Traveling vaudeville shows would often debut in New York City and subsequently stop and perform in Buffalo before continuing to Chicago.

Over the next 25 years, Shea’s Buffalo was the place to find the finest stage and screen entertainment. Great performers have graced the stage beginning in vaudeville days—George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Red Skeleton, Cab Calloway, Charlie Chaplin, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Harry James.

In l948, Shea’s Buffalo became part of the Loew’s chain of theaters. By this time, stage shows were no longer a practical form of entertainment and Shea’s became a straight film house. Shea’s continued showing films, but was no longer the showplace it had once been. By its low point in the l970s, it had fallen into disrepair and was nearly demolished.

In l975, the Loew’s Corporation terminated its operations of the Shea’s Buffalo as a film house. It was not long after wards that the Shea’s went dark and the City of Buffalo had foreclosed on the property to prevent Loew’s from selling the antique furniture and fixtures.

Then a small group of people, soon to become The Friends of Buffalo Theater stepped in to try and save the magnificent 3,200-seat structure. Successful in obtaining National Register of Historic Places status, the theater was re-opened as a performing arts center. In l999, a $30 million stage house expansion and theater renovation began, with the final work to be completed within the next few years. During this time, the Friends of Buffalo began to operate the theater once again through an agreement with the City of Buffalo, which retained ownership of the building. Live entertainment, in the form of touring companies and concerts, returned to Shea’s stage and to the people of Western New York.

Shea’s Buffalo Center for the Performing Arts was born.

  The Shea's Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ will be played by renowned
organist Anthony Newman during the "Celebration Concert," Feb. 16.
Photo by Jim Bush

Anthony C. Conte
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  Anthony C. Conte, President of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, says, “I’m very proud that we’ve been able to get through what were some very dark days for this theater in the early 70s and 80s. We managed to make it through and got to the point where we were very stable financially. Programmatically, we bring in between 350 and 400,000 patrons a year to the downtown area.”

Conte, who was a volunteer at Shea’s for about 30 years before taking over as corporate president in 2001, says he became involved with The Friends of Buffalo Theater — a group of local citizens that felt the theater was far to important to become a parking lot, and it needed to be saved. During the years more volunteers have worked on maintaining and restoring the interior of the theater.

“What really amazed me was when we started asking people – once the ball got rolling and we started the restoration project – that we had such overwhelming support. Nobody turned us down, recalls Conte, who was a member of the board, served on the executive committee, chaired marketing committees, developed committees and also chaired fund raising drives. “It was really rewarding to see how much people appreciate what we do, especially folks that for the most part don’t generally get involved in that sort of thing.”

In the 60s, there was some work done commercially and in the mid to late l970s, whenever money could be found repair and emergency maintenance work to stop the leaking and things of that nature.

The true restoration, Conte explains, really began in the l980s and early 90s. At the time, he says, work was underway on the inside of the theater again.

“The big change came in l999 when $16.5 million was spent to build the stage house, which is not a restoration project, but a brand new building,” says Conte. “We essentially removed the back wall of the stage, pushed the stage out another 20 feet and built a brand new building behind it, which provides all of our dressing rooms for the various performers.”

One of the major problems we had was that we couldn’t attract the very best Broadway shows and concerts because the facilities were terrible. It was very important to be able to bring in shows that people would actually want to see. Finally, we were able to do that.”

Attendance and number of events increased each season. But such growth is only possible through the generosity of the Western New York community. These contributions have not only helped to build and sustain the center, they have helped set the cultural tone for the area.

“We raised the money and today when you come into the theater what you see in front of the curtain is vintage 1925,” he says. “What you see behind the curtain is vintage 2000. It’s all brand new, state-of-the-art Internet connected with a computerized lighting system and sound. That’s the part you don’t see. But it was very important if we were going to take a shot and become self-sufficient. Then the true restoration of the theater began.”

Conte pointed out that the external restoration of the building, which consisted of three major projects that took place at the time the stage house was built, is complete. “In September, 2004, the new sign was unveiled,” he says. “Work consisted of a new roof to new fire escapes, and completely refurbished exterior walls. After that point, we no longer had water leaking into the building.”

The restoration work, he explains, is an ongoing process, with still another eight to ten years. “But the unique part of our interior restoration project is that it’s all being done by volunteers who range in age from l9 to 87.”

Regardless of their age, talent or capabilities, restoration volunteers work hard every day to ensure that the Buffalo historic site will again shine in splendor as it did in l926.

“We have a pretty wide variety of folks that volunteer and they really enjoy what they do,” says Conte. “You can see that the beauty of the result is the fact that these people work very hard because they love what they’re doing. The fall in love with the building and really appreciate the fact that they’re given an opportunity to have a hand in what’s happening.”

“If people are inclined, and want to get involved in actually doing the restoration work, we’re always looking for more restoration volunteers,” he says. “We also ask people to consider making an annual contribution to help the operation and the maintenance of Shea’s.”

The work that has been done to Shea’s Performing Arts Center over the years is extremely rewarding for Conte. But he has also found rewards in the people who have shared their time and talents for such a worthy project.

Today, Buffalo’s downtown theater district is booming again. Just like in the glory days, visiting the Shea’s is like a journey back in time. In addition to Broadway shows, Shea’s offers opera, dance, pop music, children’s programming and concerts at the fully restored Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Classic films, only fully appreciated on a big screen, are also shown at the center.

Shea’s 80th anniversary celebration, which continues Feb.16 when the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Music Director JoAnn Falletta, presents a concert in the theater. Tickets range from $19.50 and $54.50. This exciting event is the first time since the l920s that a full orchestra will play at Shea’s.

“We’ve had elements of the Philharmonic on our stage, but the BPO hasn’t performed here as a full orchestra,” says Conte. It gives us the ability to showcase our restored Wurlitzer Organ. Being able to feature that in a concert with our own Philharmonic to me it becomes a very special event – its something I’ve been working on for several years.”

    --Kathryn Radeff is a feature writer for Woman’s World magazine. Following a 20-year career as a fitness instructor and dance educator, she now specializes in writing about health and medical issues.
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