By James Ross
, VA – Can you imagine a business trying to be successful by offering exactly the same product for the last 100 years? That may work in the world of Scotch Whisky but surely less in the world of classical music.
After World War I, classical music concerts became stuck in an odd time warp centered primarily around pieces that had been written a century before. If we classical musicians aspire to being vital for the times in which we live, how can we refashion concerts as impactful events? As the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra’s new artistic leader, here are a few of my goals:
Play playfully. I take my love for music and for the people who make it very seriously, but I try not to have an exaggerated sense of sacred mission or self-importance.
One recent concert began with nothing but whistling. Another surrounded the audience with a chorus singing. Our Alexandria Birthday Celebration concert on the waterfront this past summer featured a mash-up of Strauss’ Radetzky March (think Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day encore) with YMCA, the iconic 70s disco hit by the Village People. What a joy to see at least three generations of music lovers gesticulating those iconic letters.
Make it personal. I love sharing my own or someone else’s personal connection to the pieces that we perform. With chagrin, I once compared Bach’s inexplicably unsuccessful job application to the Earl of Brandenburg to my own quite successful cover letter applying to lead the ASO. A special feature of our October concert was a work composed by an ASO musician’s father, Lionel Semiatin, while he served on the battlefields and beaches of Normandy in World War II.
Connect to our community. I am passionate about not only featuring performers with deep connections to our city but also seeking creative common ground with local institutions. Orchestras are accustomed to asking for money but are less apt to ask how they can contribute to someone else’s goals. I’m now having those kinds of cross-genre conversations all over Alexandria.
Connect ASO Sympatico richly to our ASO events. Sympatico is patterned after El Sistema, a model for music education invented in Venezuela that unleashes the power of collective music-making into the lives of young people. Our own incredible program began six years ago at John Adams Elementary School and now includes 130 students there. This fall Sympatico expanded to Patrick Henry K-8 school. With generous funding from Alexandria-based Classical Movements the ASO is commissioning a piece that will be performed jointly by Sympatico and ASO musicians in May.
Expect the unexpected. My first two seasons have included “mystery preludes,” audience participation, and other elements not listed in the concert program. We aspire to present programs that tell stories, question concert rituals (when we applaud, what we wear, how we relate, etc.), and collaborate with other musical genres and art forms to broaden the idea of what a concert can be.
Who gets to speak? Composers who are female, African American, Latino, or immigrants all have important messages to share with us through their notes about the fullness of the American experience. We can no longer build concert programs around the music of mostly dead white men as if they were the most vital contemporary voices for our times. Last season’s “Sister Project” featured short works by gifted women who were influential in the musical lives of their more famous brothers and mates—Fanny Mendelssohn, Nannerl Mozart, and Clara Schumann. This season, four of our five weekend concert programs include pieces by female composers such as Gabriela Lena Frank and Florence Price. “Old” music can be made new for our times only if creativity is exercised in all considerations of how it unfolds, what various voices it promotes, and what it represents. Can we make each concert a memorable, impactful event for those who are in our concert halls right now, today? Come see! I look forward to meeting you there.
James Ross joined the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra as its Music Director in 2018.