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'At its core, music is all about people and touching those people'

"it's about what the heart of the composer is saying to the heart of the listener. It's about the human element behind the technical artistry. At its core, it's about people, and touching people."

And so began her lifelong love affair with the symphony orchestra and the ambition to be literally at the centre of its magnificent creativity. It rarely occurred to the teenage Falletta that her desire to become a conductor was unusual for a girl - she was 16 or 17 before she realised the scarcity of female role-models, she says.

"I guess I didn't give it much thought before then," she explains. "Looking back, I see I was lucky. I entered the field at a good time. Even 10 years earlier, it might not have happened for me."

In the usually male dominated world of conducting, has she ever experienced prejudice because of her gender? "I tried very hard not to be aware of it," she says, revealing an innate, positive attitude. "I didn't want anything to hold me back."

She also credits the encouragement of her teachers at Juilliard, including one Leonard Bernstein - the most important American musician of the 20th century, in her opinion.

"He has been a great influence on my life," she says. "He was a very wonderful human being and an artist. For me, he sums up what music is really about - the emotions, the passion, as well as the notes on the page.

"Of course, we were all terrified of him - he had a reputation for not suffering fools - but he was actually very kind and gentle with us young conductors.

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"He opened our minds to thinking in different ways and he got music out of our orchestras of which no one, including themselves, thought they were capable. I never heard him mention the words 'technique' or 'precision' or anything like that.

"He tried to get you to feel the music, to immerse yourself in it and experience it bodily. He was such an important inspiration to young American musicians of my generation, as he was the first American to become an international star. It was like Bernstein validated cultural life in the US, and it's all taken off from there."

JoAnn and her husband Robert Alemany (55), a systems analyst for IBM and part-time professional clarinettist, live between their homes in Norfolk, Virginia, and Buffalo, New York. They have no children. She is music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and also of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. She also fits in duties as principal guest conductor of the Brevard Music Centre in North Carolina and regularly travels outside the US to guest-conduct with some of the finest orchestras in the world, from China to Israel to Germany.

The great news for local music lovers is that Belfast has now become a third home for the peripatetic Falletta, as she settles into her new position this month as principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, just in time for the new season, which began last week. She will be personally on hand for eight projects during 2011/12 - a red-letter year for the orchestra, incorporating the Titanic centenary (for which Ulster Orchestra associate composer Ian Wilson has written a specially commissioned piece), and the first Proms concert in over 10 years, with Sir James Galway at the helm.

Other programme highlights include appearances by acclaimed pianists Paul Lewis, Nikolai Demidenko and Barry Douglas, virtuoso violinists Jack Liebeck, Pekka Kuusisto and Tasmin Little, mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Australian classical guitarist Craig Ogden and Scottish classical percussionist Colin Currie.

To whet our appetites, Falletta and the orchestra have already recorded a selection of highlights - among them Bach's Double Violin Concerto, Bernstein's On The Town and Grieg's Peer Gynt. Belfast Telegraph readers can pick up a free copy with the paper on Friday.

Falletta has also delivered early on her reputation for securing top drawer recording contracts for regional orchestras. Under her direction, the Buffalo Philharmonic rose from relative obscurity to releasing 12 CDs in a decade, two Grammy winners among them.

While the Ulster Orchestra is no stranger to recording, Falletta has nailed a deal on its behalf with the prestigious Naxos label, which brings international reach and builds upon the orchestra's previous work for Naxos.

Despite her knowledge of classical music, does Falletta ever encounter anti-American snobbery in the grand old concert halls of the European capitals? "Not as such, I don't think so. I mean, Europe is the cradle of the orchestra, and no one can take that away from them, it's just a fact.

"And America's culture grew out of that displaced European culture, so Europe is definitely where it all started. But then America started to grow its own sensibility, its own voice.

"Now, when I go abroad, I'm very proud to showcase composers like Bernstein, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. It's easy to take those musicians for granted, when you've grown up with them, but often it's only when you hear them through the ears of people not so acquainted with them, that you really can value them all over again."

JoAnn finds it hard to come up with a top five, but she narrows down her favourite era to the late 1800s/early 1900s - the timeline that spawned Debussy, Mahler, Ravel, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Bartok, Stravinsky, Strauss. "It was a time of great turmoil, politically and socially," she says, "but also a time when orchestras were expanding, incorporating new instruments, so there was great tension and excitement in the air. I think the music reflects all that."

Notwithstanding her reverence for the canon, Falletta has also been a crusader for lesser-known composers and living composers - particularly those from the cultures in which she finds herself working. She has championed contemporary composers like Californian guitar supremo Jim Ferguson and women composers in danger of being written out of history, including Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn. Hence her double excitement at the prospect of uncovering Irish composers like Joan Pringle and Ina Boyle.

"These are fantastically interesting new voices for me," she says. "That's why I love working in different places around the world. If I stayed in the one place I wouldn't keep learning so much. There are such riches out there and discovering them helps me grow as a musician. When I learn new music, it changes me. It changes how I relate to the music I already know, including the classics."

She can't wait to get stuck in to working with the Ulster Orchestra, and spending more time in Belfast, albeit in hotel rooms, at least for the first year. "Robert and I spent a week in Belfast recently and we had a great time. I was struck by the vibrancy of the city, the atmosphere of liveliness and alertness and buzz. I'm not just saying that. We found it a stimulating place.

"And the scenery of Northern Ireland was just so much more beautiful even than we were expecting. We toured up the Antrim Coast to the Giant's Causeway and, in truth, we were blown away. It was just so, so beautiful."

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