When JoAnn Falletta was appointed music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in 1991, it was a revolutionary moment.
At the official announcement of her hire, guests wore buttons that read, "A Woman's Place is directing the orchestra." The Norfolk, Va., orchestra was hailed for breaking the glass ceiling with a talent who at one time had been told she shouldn't study conducting because it was doubtful she could get a job on the podium.
Twenty-two years later, Falletta is one of the most ubiquitous conductors in the United States, particularly if you get your music through recordings and the radio. Her performances, particularly conducting the Buffalo (N.Y.) Philharmonic Orchestra, are carried regularly by the public radio program Performance Today, and she has amassed more than 75 recordings with the Buffalo and Virginia orchestras and other ensembles. Two of those records have won Grammy Awards.
"I've been very, very lucky, particularly in Buffalo, where we have a contract with Naxos Records, and we record a lot of new music that isn't widely recorded," Falletta said during an early morning interview before jetting off to another engagement.
Falletta's tour calendar brings her to Richmond this week on a tour with the Irish Chamber Orchestra and one of the true marquee stars of classical music today, flutist Sir James Galway, along with his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, also a flutist.
"He really elevated the flute to the level of great solo instrument," Falletta says of James Galway, with whom she has performed numerous times. Explaining his broad appeal, she adds, "His passion and his love of people come off the stage. When he plays, he is really playing directly to the people."
Falletta has a personal history with the Galways, having gone to the Mannes School of Music in New York with the former Jeanne Cinnante.
"It was sort of funny because she was Jeanne from Long Island back then," says Falletta, 59, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native. "And now she's Lady Jeanne."
The Irish Chamber Orchestra, Falletta says, is a "fantastic group with a sense of rhythmic energy. It's a lot of young people who love the music, and it's thrilling to work with them."
Falletta actually is developing a strong relationship with Irish musicians, having taken up the baton for the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2011, becoming the first American and first woman to lead the group.
Two decades on, she says she while she is pleased with the progress of women on the podium, "it's been a little slower to open up than I thought."
Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is the highest-profile female conductor on the orchestra landscape. But Falletta says the real place to look for progress is in smaller orchestras that are picking female conductors with greater regularity.
In fact, both of the female candidates in the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra's most recent search for a music director have gone on to prominent posts: Mei-Ann Chen is music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and Kayoko Dan is music director of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. (Dan also served two years as director of the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras.)
Falletta observes that women leading orchestras "doesn't seem so unusual anymore."
Irish Chamber Orchestra
What: The orchestra performs with conductor JoAnn Falletta, left, and flutists Sir James Galway and Lady Jeanne Galway.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Dr., Richmond
Tickets: $55.50-$75.50. Available at the box office, by calling (859) 622-7469 or at Ekucenter.com.
Added event: Sir James Galway will lead a master class from 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 4, the day before the concert, at the EKU Center. Admission is free, and all in attendance will receive vouchers to buy concert tickets for $25.