JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn Falletta has been involved with music for most of her life. She started playing classical guitar on her seventh birthday, and not long after, conducting caught her attention.

"It was really the repertoire" that drew her to it, Falletta said from her home in Virginia. "I went to a lot of orchestra concerts, and I found that the pieces I heard the orchestra play were just absolutely overwhelming. The idea of working with the orchestra, the idea of making music with such an incredible instrument, was very appealing to me."

Taking on training to be a conductor was not without its challenges, though. "It's hard for every young conductor because when we begin working with orchestras those musicians know a great deal about music and we're just starting out," Falletta said. "It's a big challenge to learn quickly, as a conductor, to be able to help orchestras because, of course, that's your role, that's your job."

Through those challenges came inspiration in the form of legendary composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. As a student at Juilliard, Falletta had the opportunity to work with him in master classes. "I got to be with him and have him coach me," she said. "It was a wonderful experience."

Now Falletta is the one traveling around the country. This week she'll join the Utah Symphony for her second time as guest conductor.

The last time she was here, Falletta found the symphony to be "extremely passionate, very flexible and filled with personality. The orchestra was a very vibrant, communicative group. For a conductor and for the listener that's a wonderful thing, to have an orchestra that is so dedicated to excellence and so communicative."

This time around Falletta will conduct three pieces — Enescu's "Romanian Rhapsody," Higdon's Percussion Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.

It's a lineup she's excited to perform. "I wanted to start with something that would showcase the orchestra right at the beginning of the concert," she said. That's why she chose the gypsy piece "Romanian Rhapsody."

"The orchestra actually becomes a kind of gypsy ensemble playing around the campfire with all these wonderful melodies and fast violin work and fabulous solos for the woodwinds. The orchestra becomes kind of a wild band and that's really fun to hear them do that."

The next work is a new percussion concerto written by Jennifer Higdon. "She is really considered one of our country's most important young composers," Falletta said. "(Her music is) played all over the county, all over the world. She's acclaimed as a vibrant new voice in American music and she's an incredible composer."

Colin Currie will join the symphony for Higdon's piece. Falletta has worked with Currie previously and calls him "one of the greatest percussionists in the world."

"If people haven't heard a percussion concerto, haven't heard Colin, I think they will be astounded by the choreography of the piece because Colin is playing a lot of instruments and he's walking and moving," she said. "It's almost like a dance. It's a fantastic thing to see and hear."

The night will end with "one of the great standards of the classical repertoire," Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. "It's one that we never get tired of because it's an incredible piece, and Tchaikovsky is one of the most passionate and emotional voices we have. This piece was written during one of the great crossroads in his life, and it actually has a subtext of fate and how fate governs and rules our lives.

"It's the kind of piece that audiences love. I mean, we love it. It's fun to play. It's overwhelming to listen to its power and its sweep. It's truly a romantic gem."

If you go ...

What: Utah Symphony, JoAnn Falletta, conductor; Colin Currie, percussionist

Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 S. West Temple

When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.

How much: $12-$48

Phone: 355-2787, 888-451-2787


Also: Tchaikovsky's Fourth on the Utah Symphony's Music Exposed series, Abravanel Hall, Thursday, 7 p.m., $10-$35