Meet James Ross, Multi-Faceted New Music Director of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra

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James Ross, New Music Director of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra

By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor

My first impression of this world-class musician and newly appointed Music Director of the Alexandria Symphony was that he is the real deal. I mean, from all that I had read about him, I expected he would be a tad impatient with some of my questions and observations, but not at all! He immediately put me at ease, and began sharing with me his thoughts on what the ASO can and should mean in the community, how he plans to grow audiences by giving them new experiences through multi-media, collaborating with his life-long friends (including potentially Chris Zimmerman, Conductor of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra), and his ideas for enriching the audience’s musical experience through innovation in programming and presentation of concerts. So there!

Here’s why I think Maestro Ross is a world-class musician and therefore why I was a little uneasy about meeting with him. He is highly educated, earning a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, studying conducting with Kurt Masur in Leipzig, while simultaneously serving as solo-horn for the prestigious Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, becoming the first American member in the orchestra’s 250 year history. In addition, he is a busy conductor who is Orchestra Director of the National Youth Orchestra in New York for several weeks each year, plus he’s on the faculty of Juilliard and is a conductor for the Spanish Orquestra Simfonica del Vallès in Sabadell, Catalonia. However, I discovered to my delight, he is easy and fun to talk with.

I asked him about the first program of the ASO’s 2018-19 Season. He mentioned that American composer Michael Torke’s joyful and majestic work Javelin, co-commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Committee (about a ten minute piece), will open the program preceded by a special mystery prelude toasting the orchestra’s 75th anniversary season. The next two pieces on the program, the Dvořák Romance in F Minor and the Saint-Saёns Introduction and Rondo capriccioso will feature Ross’ long-time friend, violinist Alexander Kerr (pronounced Karr), who grew up in Alexandria!

Maestro Ross told me that when he was talking with Kerr about him taking over the leadership of the ASO, Kerr exclaimed, “The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra is my hometown band!” Maestro Ross continued, “I’ve known Alex since we studied together at the Curtis Institute of Music in the late 80’s. He was concertmaster for several prestigious orchestras, eventually for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. After nine years there, Alex became a professor at Indiana University and is now Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony and others. This “prodigal son” is coming back home to play with the ASO due to our old friendship and Alex’s ongoing connection to Alexandria where his mother still resides” The final work on the season opener will be Beethoven’s exultant Symphony No. 7.

Maestro James Ross

We also discussed the challenges of keeping his body in shape (which is a necessity in his line of work as in all areas of the arts!) with all the traveling and his active life. Ross says, “The cardiovascular work of conductors tends to keep us alive and active somewhat longer than even we expect!” Another one of the things he mentioned is that he is running a marathon with his cousin at Jackson Hole just before Labor Day. He has run only one other marathon 18 years ago in Seattle (also with his cousin) for which he trained for eight brief weeks, and nonetheless managed to finish despite the pain and without setting any speed records. He hasn’t run one since, but his cousin has! In fact, his cousin has run at least one marathon in each of 49 states, and this one will be his 50th. So, Ross said since he had done the first marathon with him, he just couldn’t resist running the last marathon. We talked also about the

possibility of sponsorship or involvement of the ASO in this effort running in support of the orchestra’s Anniversary. I think he’s onto something there… Who doesn’t love cheering on your hometown Symphony Music Director in a marathon?

I asked Maestro Ross for his mission statement, if you will, for his tenure with the ASO and here it is: “Every orchestra in the world, not just the United States, is trying to figure out how to connect more vitally with the communities right around them; and that will be the way we will be thinking about Alexandria Symphony in the future…there has to be a deeper connection of this special orchestra to its own community that gives Alexandrians a sense of ownership, belonging, and complicity with the orchestra. And, for me,” he continued, “that includes the idea that the musical voices that we hear in our concerts have to be as diverse as the communities themselves.”

We live in a world,” Ross said, “where few women composers are ever featured in our orchestral concerts and where few musicians of color are present. Rare on our concert stages are diverse composers representing voices from other countries and composers seeing America through a Latino or African-American, Asian or middle Eastern lens. That is a part of who we are as a country and the lack of those varied voices on our classical programs cripples the music’s striving for wholeness and unity. The reality that classical music is still paralyzingly white in who we normally see on stage performing it, makes for events that can be difficult for everybody to come and feel that what they’re seeing and hearing represents the fullness of who we are in this 21st-Century. So, with all the means we have, we are going to be trying to make our orchestra a place where what happens onstage mirrors and is connected umbilically to the community around us.”

Boom. I rest my case. And if you want my honest opinion, I think the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra is in excellent hands for now and in the future.