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An American, A Woman, A New Yorker: All Firsts for Ulster Orchestra’s Podium

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Queens-born and New York-educated JoAnn Falletta has been appointed the new principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, it was announced Monday. Falletta has signed on for three seasons with the Orchestra. She will maintain her appointments as the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

Falletta conducted the Ulster Orchestra for the first time last August during the BBC’s Summer Invitation Concerts. “The Ulster Orchestra is one of the great orchestras of these islands and has been a cornerstone of cultural life here in good times and bad for many years now,” Falletta said in a statement. “It is a huge honor for me to become its principal conductor.”

The announcement was made Monday as Falletta took the Ulster Hall stage to conduct the launch of its new concert program for the 2011-2012 season. Falletta is the 12th conductor to lead the Ulster Orchestra, following a list of past conductors that include Bryden Thompson, Vernon Handley, Yan Pacal Tortelier and, most recently, Kenneth Montgomery.

The appointment marks the first time that the 45-year-old Ulster Orchestra will be led by an American, or by a woman. “It’s a big day for us,” Ulster Orchestra chief executive Declan McGovern told WQXR by phone from Belfast.

“We have lots of good conductors over here, but we wanted to go with JoAnn,” McGovern said. “The first reason is her curiosity as a musician, in terms of the recordings she has done for Naxos and the way she has steered the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra over the years.” McGovern also highlighted the close ties between the US and Northern Ireland. “There are a lot of connections between here and the commercial world of America, as well as the heritage,” he said. “It’s a very neat fit.”

McGovern anticipates that Falletta will continue to focus on the classical and romantic repertoire, but will also lead the Ulster Orchestra in new work. “She has great dexterity and flexibility,” McGovern said. “That’s what we need in Northern Ireland.”

Falletta made her Ulster Orchestra debut last summer in a BBC-sponsored concert that included a performance of Amy Beach’s Symphony No. 2. As the BBC’s orchestra in Northern Ireland, Declan anticipates Falletta will work closely with the BBC and continue her recording career. Falletta has released over 40 albums and has won four Grammys.

“She likes to keep busy and the way the music directorship is structured, there’s plenty of time to do these things,” commented Dan Hart, executive director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra where Falletta is music director. “Her level of commitment is so intense she’s not going to let those scale back at all.”

Falletta was born in Queens, New York in 1954 and was educated at Mannes College of Music and the Juilliard School. When she entered Mannes in 1971, she intended to study guitar, but soon became engrossed in conducting. “She had no ego and was a really sweet girl,” remembered Mannes professor Carl Schachter, who has been a member of the techniques of music department since 1956. “There were people who tried to discourage her from going into conducting, but she was pretty adamant.”

In the 11 years since assuming her Buffalo appointment, the Orchestra has been subject to the same economic forces that have leveled other companies. But under Falletta’s leadership, Buffalo has seen a ten percent increase in classical subscribers. “To me that’s very encouraging news,” Hart said. “The feedback we get from a programming standpoint is that JoAnn has the unique ability to balance the familiar with things that are not so familiar.”

Falletta will lead her first full-length concert in Ulster on September 21 in a performance of 14 to 16 works meant to set the tone for the coming season, during which she is to have eight engagements. “We look forward to building more connections between Belfast and New York with this appointment,” Ulster Orchestra chief executive Declan McGovern said. “We want to be a beacon that reflects the new confidence of this place.”