Duke Ellington and Anglo-Irish composer Moeran sit at roughly opposite ends of the music spectrum. But this month something, or rather someone, links them: JoAnn Falletta. The American conductor’s two latest recordings focus respectively on the music of Moeran, with the Ulster Orchestra and cellist Guy Johnston, and the tone poems of Duke Ellington, performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. She spoke to us about the different challenges that faced her on each of the discs.
Why did you decide to record a disc of music by Moeran?
When I was appointed principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra I was hoping that I’d have the opportunity to learn repertoire that was completely unknown in the US. After some research and help from the orchestra, I discovered Moeran. I was amazed that music of such a high quality and such a strong individual voice was not played internationally. So we made this one of our first projects and I’m now on a campaign in the US telling cellists ‘you must play this work!’
The centrepiece of the disc is Moeran’s Cello Concerto, performed here by Guy Johnston. Tell us why you chose this work.
I found it stunning. It’s without question one of the finest 20th-century concertos and very little played outside the UK. It reminded me very much of Elgar. There’s a melancholy resignation, a kind of looking back and a feeling of regret. Moeran’s wife was a cellist. It was not a happy union but I think he always loved her – in fact she gave the premiere of this piece. So there’s something very personal about it.
Have you worked with Guy Johnston before?
This is our first performance together and it was his first performance of the concerto – so it was a discovery for both of us. And although he’d never played with the Ulster Orchestra before, he has a particular relationship with it because his grandfather was the principal clarinet. He was quite touched to have the chance to play with his grandfather’s orchestra.
Your recording of orchestra music by Duke Ellington is also out this month on Naxos. How did you choose the music to include?
This is the other end of the spectrum. I look for music for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra that is really right for an American orchestra. These Ellington works – Black, Brown and Beige, Three Black Kings and Harlem – are not well known in our country. Ellington is loved and he is credited with being the person who single-handedly elevated jazz to the highest level. But his orchestral music is not played very often. These tone poems are amazing things to play and hear – we had four or five people who were great jazz players in the orchestra so they were able to come to the fore in this recording. It was, without a doubt, the most fun CD we have ever made.
Did you have to change your conducting style for the recording?
I did – there’s such a looseness there and some of it’s improvised, so I had to be really on my toes and allow a lot of room for flexibility. I’d grown up with Ellington, but these are pieces people don’t know. It was an amazing adventure and now I’m hoping lots of orchestras will start playing his music, because it’s incredibly infectious. You can’t help but be carried away by the swing of this jazz.
JoAnn Falletta’s recordings of music by Moeran and Duke Ellington are both available now on the Naxos label
Photo: Mark Dellas