JoAnn Falletta never thought it could come to this, but she actually misses flying. Falletta, the celebrated artistic director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, has guest conducted more than 100 orchestras in the U.S. and around the globe.
But do you know what she really misses? That intimate, essential connection between a maestro and the musicians, and between a symphony and its devoted audience. The BPO hasn’t performed together live for two months because of the coronavirus pandemic. A musical eternity.
“I feel really bereft,” Falletta said last week by phone. “That’s our only reason for living — playing for people. We feel kind of rootless and cut off from air. That’s what we do. It’s like air and food to us to play for people. That’s what our lives are about.”
So like many orchestras around the world during the crisis, the BPO wanted to sustain some kind of connection with its fans. Several of the musicians have posted performances, either individually or in duos or trios, on the orchestra’s website under the ‘PlayOnBPO’ campaign.
They wanted something grander, however, something that would involve the whole group. So Caroline Gilbert, the BPO’s principal violist, and Brett Shurtliffe, associate principal bassist, set about the task of coming up with a piece that would lift people’s spirits during this difficult time.
They knew that other orchestras in the U.S. and around the world had been performing remotely, putting together short pieces that honored the victims of COVID-19. At first, they considered Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”
“Happily enough, another orchestra had just done the same project right when we were talking about it,” said Shurtliffe, a Lewisburg, Pa., native who has been with the BPO for 12 years.
Other orchestras were following the same basic theme, focusing on the coronavirus and its human toll. Maybe the BPO should come up with a piece that didn’t focus so much on the suffering, but renewal.
“Why don’t we do The Firebird?” Gilbert said. “Let’s focus on what’s good about our community, what’s going to happen afterwards, that idea of hope.”
It seemed like a lightning bolt, the perfect idea. The Firebird, a ballet and orchestral work by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, is the magical story of a soul’s awakening and rebirth.
“It’s an ancient Russian fairy tale,” Falletta said. “At the end, the evil king has turned everyone to stone. There’s no life at all. The firebird, with her magic, touches the city and all of a sudden they come back to life.”
Really, what could be more symbolic during a pandemic than the idea of people’s souls rising again from a deep sleep? The BPO had planned to perform The Firebird at Kleinhan’s Music Hall on April 18-19. It’s long been one of their favorite pieces.
“We probably played it this year alone for children two dozen times,” Shurtliffe said. “I’ve been here 12 or 13 years. I’ve probably played it a hundred times. So we all knew it really well. It was something we loved to play and it was a crowd favorite. So we said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Early in the process, someone pointed out that the BPO was founded as a public works (WPA) project after the Depression in 1935. It was literally created out of despair, to provide Buffalo a musical release and much-needed jobs as the nation and the city rose from the ashes.
“That’s why we were founded, to help people heal from the Great Depression,” Falletta said. “So in a sense, the orchestra has always had this personality of an orchestra of the people. It wasn’t founded by a wealthy board, or by a big donor. It was founded by the government to buoy people’s spirits.
“We always felt we belonged to the people of Buffalo, Erie County and Western New York, because that’s why we were formed. So it made the idea of The Firebird even more fitting for us.”
Now all they had to do was get 50 world-class musicians to perform remotely, isolated in their homes, and turn in into a coherent piece.
“It was quite difficult,” Gilbert said, “the business of how we were going to get everybody to line up. That was one major issue. The other was how to compile 50 videos of people playing music and make it into a movie.”
Luckily, Shurtliffe had good connections in the technical world. Zoom wasn’t an option. There’s no way an orchestra could perform simultaneously on the internet. But he knew a sound engineer with a program that could create a “click track” to could serve as a sort of metronome for the musicians while they played along to a recording of Firebird while recording their performance on camera.
“So we basically got this click track out to the musicians,” Shurtliffe said, “and within five days, we had everybody’s videos back. Not all the musicians were available. One of my colleagues is stuck in New York City without his instrument. He’s at his parents’ house.”
Finally, Shurtliffe was fortunate to discover that a friend had just started a video production company called Uplifter Video, which could put the musical performances on video, accompanied by historic photographs of Buffalo.
It’s the photos that distinguish the BPO video from others in the music world, and that express the central theme of a community in revival. As the musicians play Firebird, you see photos of Shea’s, the Albright Knox and Kleinhan’s under construction. There’s a photo of City Hall being built in the early 1930s.
There are photos of past orchestras, with the names of past conductors beneath. There’s a stunning photo of Kleinhan’s illuminated in rainbow colors at night, which was the result of some unimagined good fortune and engineering wherewithal.
“Those lights stopped functioning 30 years ago,” Falletta said. “None of us had ever seen them.”
A month or so ago, engineers James Schillinger and Bill Hibbard realized the rainbow lights had been inactive for all this time. They decided to repair them and bring them back to the people.
“They simply wanted to do it because we thought it would bring hope,” Falletta said. “You see it in the video. Kleinhan’s all of a sudden becomes lit up. People are stunned as they pass by, that we now have rainbow lights on the panels above the reflecting pool. I said to myself, ‘That is so Buffalo’.”
The Firebird video is soaring and triumphant, all three minutes of it, what Falletta calls “a love letter to the region.”
“Now more than ever,” it begins, “let our song of rebirth ring out from person to person, community to community, ’til together from the ashes, we rise.”
Falletta, 66, couldn’t say when the Philharmonic will return. They were hoping for June, but that’s probably too optimistic. The shutdown was especially jarring because this season was a celebration of Falletta’s 20 years as artistic director.
In October, she signed a five-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season. Fans in Buffalo have the consolation of knowing that Falletta, who became the first woman to lead a major American ensemble when she took over in Buffalo in 1999, will be around for at least another six years.
They’ll have her to themselves, too. At the end of June, Falletta is scheduled to retire as musical director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra after 29 years. Imagine that, one woman directing two orchestras for more than two decades — while winning two Grammys and countless other awards.
“Oh, my God, she’s all over the place and she’s always on top of everything,” said Gilbert, 31, an Indiana native who joined the BPO in 2017. “It’s really amazing. I’m so lucky to work with JoAnn. Did you see the Macy’s commercial early this year where they featured four influential women and she was in that commercial! It fully hit me then.”
Falletta came to Buffalo in 1998. She’s stayed ever since and become by far the longest-serving music director of the BPO. You could say she’s become an honorary Buffalo girl, one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders.
As she says, music is her life, the very air she breathes. Last fall, in an interview with Jeff Miers, Falletta talked about music’s “incredibly healing” power, and how it “gives you the energy and the strength to go on.”
The words seem prescient, when you consider what has happened to the world in the intervening months. The BPO’s video reminds us that the world needs the healing power of music more than ever.
“Back in the Depression, imagine the government thinking, ‘We need an orchestra, we need something to give people hope,’” Falletta said. “They were so right. Music does heal us and make us stronger and more joyful. Music has connected us to the community, and the community to each other.
“I grew up in Queens,” she said. “I didn’t know much about Buffalo. It was a revelation, not just the history and beauty of it, but the people. The spirit in the city was so completely overwhelming and enveloping that I thought, this is the best place to be, and I feel that every day. It’s the best place to be.”