An Open Letter to JoAnn Falletta

Music JoAnn Falletta ROBOTHAM

By Tom Robotham

 

Dear JoAnn,

It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since you and I put down roots in Hampton Roads. That’s right—I don’t know whether you remember this, but you and I both moved to Norfolk in 1991.

The timing was fortuitous. When I moved here from New York City, I was looking forward to a fresh start in a very different kind of town from my native city. My daughter was not even two years old, and her mom and I felt that Norfolk, with its more easygoing lifestyle and lower cost of living, would be a good place to raise a family. Nevertheless, I worried that I would miss New York’s vast array of cultural attractions—especially the New York Philharmonic, which I’d loved ever since I attended my first concert at Lincoln Center when I was 18.

I’d heard that Norfolk had its own symphony, but assumed—with characteristic New York snobbery—that it couldn’t be very good.

Boy, was I wrong. The first time I saw the Virginia Symphony at Chrysler Hall, I was absolutely astonished, both by its technical precision and its exuberance. But the best was yet to come.

It was not long after we both arrived here that you and I met for lunch for the first time. We talked about the classical repertoire, music journalism, our respective experiences in New York City, your passion for the classical guitar, and all manner of other things. What struck me about you was your authenticity. I felt that you were sincerely interested in our conversation, and I left that lunch that day feeling utterly inspired. It was gratifying to find a new friend with so many shared interests, but as a journalist I was also intrigued by the prospect of writing about you and the orchestra.

We had many lunches together after that, but my fondest memory is of one in 2000, when we discussed an idea for an in-depth piece. After some very fruitful brainstorming, we agreed that I would spend an entire week with the Symphony, exploring in detail the preparation that goes into a single concert.

The featured piece on the program was Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. I was vaguely familiar with it, but I did not know it well. In subsequent conversations, you explained to me its historical context as well as its musical contours and significance. It seemed to me that your eyes—your whole being, in fact—lit up as you spoke. And as I sat through the first rehearsal—during which you took it apart, virtually measure by measure—I began to understand and to feel what you had explained to me.

What struck me as well was how gracious you were during those rehearsals. You had an enormous task at hand, getting the orchestra ready for opening night, and I’m sure that somewhere deep down it was stressful for you. But you never showed that stress. Moreover, you made me feel included in the process, introducing me to a number of the musicians. They made me feel welcome as well, and several of them subsequently became good friends. That is a testament to them, of course, but also to you, because it seems to me that the entire orchestra is infused with your spirit. Like you, the musicians were not only obliging but seemed eager to share their thoughts on the piece, on the challenges of being part of an orchestra, and on your leadership. Every last one of them seemed to radiate with affection when they spoke of you.

With all of this in mind, I was excited when I took my seat in Chrysler Hall on opening night and awaited the beginning of the concert. As I noted earlier, I’d seen countless orchestral performances, not only at Lincoln Center, but at Carnegie Hall, and in other cities from San Francisco to London. None can compare to the concert I saw that night in Norfolk. Having gotten to know you, the musicians and the Prokofiev Fifth, I felt that I had a stake in the concert’s outcome. I was rooting for you—and you did not disappoint. Although I love classical music, I’ll admit that at times, during concerts in the past, my attention has wandered. Not that night, though. I hung on every note—and to this day, the Prokofiev is one of my favorite pieces in the repertoire.

What a gift!

Meanwhile, the article that I ended up writing and publishing about the experience remains, to my mind, one of the best things I’ve ever written, out of well over a thousand articles and several books. You were very complimentary after you read it, but the truth is, I could not have written it in the way that I did had it not been for your inspiration and the bond I’d come to feel with the musicians.

Fifteen years have come and gone since that experience. We’ve had other lunches, all of which have been lovely, and I’ve attended many other Virginia Symphony concerts, all of which have been superb. But that experience of immersion remains as vivid in my memory as if it happened yesterday.

Reflecting on this, I cannot find the words to adequately express my appreciation of what you have given me and the community. And so, let me just close with this: You are one of the finest people I have ever met—so musical, not only in the literal sense but in the way that you live life and interact with people. You have brought so much beauty into this town, my adopted home, and with this in mind I want to remind everyone that your anniversary is worthy of the most joyful celebration.

Yours in faith and gratitude,

Tom

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