An overture to a historic season

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James Ross atop the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, one of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra's main performance venues. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Saturday marks the start of a momentous season for the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra. Not only is the organization celebrating its 75th anniversary – it’s introducing the Symphony’s first new music director in almost 30 years.

James Ross was selected as the new maestro after a two-year-long search process. He replaces former conductor Kim Kluge, who announced he was stepping down after 28 years with the orchestra in 2016.

Ross was among four final candidates selected from a pool of 170 applicants to audition as music director by conducting one of the ASO’s concerts last season. He was named the new director after the close of the season in May. Since then, he’s been busy at work preparing to celebrate the orchestra’s three-quarter-century anniversary.

James E. Ross (Courtesy Photo)

“There’s like an exhilaration, an excitement, a nervousness around it,” Ross said, “because all of our first experiences together as an organization and a conductor will be happening while they’re trying to have this big [75th anniversary] celebration, but that should create a kind of synergy.”

At 58 years old, Ross has built an impressive career directing orchestras throughout his adult life, but like most maestros, his knack for conducting grew out of an early passion for music.

“Both my mom and dad are great music lovers,” he said. “There was just natural encouragement for all of the five kids in my family to play instruments and have music be part of our lives as a family.”

Ross began playing the piano when he was in first grade, but it wasn’t until he entered sixth grade that he discovered his natural talent for the horn.

“As soon as I picked up the horn, there was something like, ‘Oh, this feels like my voice, like I can sing who I am through this instrument,’” he said. “And that just stuck with me. It wasn’t really a question of being forced to practice. I just sort of felt like when I was playing the horn, I was who I was.”

Ross said the horn came naturally and described himself at that time as “a little bit of a prodigy.” Playing the horn also had a personal attachment for Ross. His family always had an emotional connection to the instrument after his uncle, who was a horn player, died tragically in a car accident.

Ross conducts the Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès in a production of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt presented at the Palau de la Música in Barcelona, Spain. The orchestra is performing “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” (Courtesy Photo)

As a young musician, Ross smoothly ascended the ranks to become one of the most accomplished adolescent horn players in the world. He performed with renowned orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, the Leipzig Radio Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. He was also awarded third prize in the Munich International Horn Competition in 1978, becoming the first American and one of the youngest competitors to do so.

“I felt quite early on that I was meant to be a musician. I was going to do that with my life, and I always assumed that meant playing the horn,” he said.

As a junior at Harvard University, however, Ross was introduced to conducting when he was invited to audition for director of the Bach Society, the college’s premier student-led chamber orchestra.

He got the position and, after that first taste, fell in love with conducting. He said he was especially fascinated by the translation of gesture to sound.

“I thought it was so fun that I could like feel like how I accented — boom! — I would then hear in the action of the orchestra,” he said, waving an imaginary baton. “It was translated from movement into sound for me, and I was sort of addicted to that.”

After graduating, Ross decided to pursue a career in conducting. He’s led a diverse collection of orchestras throughout his career, including the Utah Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Ross also found a passion for teaching and has served on the faculty at several prominent music institutes, including the Juilliard School, Yale University and the Curtis Institute of Music. He recently finished a 16-year tenure at the University of Maryland.

A young James Ross studying with his teacher, Leonard Bernstein, the iconic American composer and conductor. (Courtesy Photo)

Greg Sandow, one of Ross’s colleagues at Juilliard, said Ross’ aptitude for conducting is something that can’t be taught.

“What he does is he just sort of breathes music,” Sandow said. “I mean, technically, he’s fine. He indicates what needs to be indicated in a very clear and expressive way, all that stuff, but the thing that I noticed about him that really distinguishes him is music just flows with him. It’s far from being just technique.”

Around the same time that Ross stepped down from his position at the University of Maryland, his friend Tim Foley, retired director of the United States Marine Band, learned about the opening at ASO.

“I just thought that Jim would make the perfect person to take over as music director of that orchestra, having already been established in the D.C area and with this absolutely phenomenal background,” Foley said. “I can’t emphasize that strongly enough, that Jim’s musical foundation is so awesome. Unlike so many orchestral conductors, Jim is really what I would call an insider in the best sense of the word.”

When Foley told Ross about the position, Ross wasn’t looking for a new job. He was already serving as the orchestra director of the National Youth Orchestra, as well as being a faculty member at the Juilliard School and conductor of the Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès in Barcelona, Spain – positions he plans to continue while directing the ASO.

Despite his already full workload, he decided to apply for the opportunity.

“It was like I stumbled into it, in a certain way,” he said, “and very often, the best things in my life happen when it just seems to be happening around me, rather than I decide I’m going to make something happen.”

James Ross conducts the Orquestra Simfónica del Vallès in 2017. (Courtesy Photo)

Claudia Chudacoff, ASO’s concertmaster and a member of the search committee, said because there was such an accomplished group of applicants, the committee considered a variety of qualifications, including musicianship, experience, community engagement and fundraising potential.

Once the committee narrowed it down to the final four, it also surveyed the orchestra and audiences to gauge their reactions to each contender’s trial concert.

“Jim did incredibly well in every area across the board,” she said. “He was liked by the audience, he was liked by the musicians, he was liked by the committee and he was liked by the board.”

Chudacoff said Ross also stood out to her because of his creative, collaborative approach.

“It’s not the traditional model that you find in the Bugs Bunny cartoons where it’s the maestro who hands down the law,” she said. “It’s more really looking for a synthesis that’s naturally arrived at, sort of that he and the musicians together present something. He’s very organic and collaborative.”

Ross collaborated with the board and orchestra members to create this season’s program. The orchestra will perform a combination of celebratory pieces, pieces connected to Alexandria and pieces that relate to the anniversary, such as scores written in 1943, the year the orchestra was established.

“One thing I’m happy about is we’re doing the Mendelsohn Symphony No. 3 – it’s called the Scottish symphony – because I learned about the Scottish Walk. I was like, ‘Does the orchestra do anything with the Scottish Walk in Alexandria?’ And they said, ‘No, but we can create a program that’s around that.’ So we might have bagpipes … and who knows, we may serve a 75th anniversary cocktail that involves scotch. Whatever we can do to sort of make that come to life,” Ross said.

Board member Melynda Wilcox said she hopes the local angle will draw Alexandrians to more ASO concerts.

“Our first concert features a violin soloist who grew up in Alexandria and went to T.C. Williams High School,” she said. “The second concert features a world premiere of the cello concerto that’s written by a local female composer. … I think it’s really cool that our 75th anniversary year, we’re really sort of tapping into things that are local.”

Ross said he is working with the board of the orchestra to ensure that this season sets the stage for the orchestra’s future.

“All I want is the first season to be a pointer toward the general direction that we are going, which is featuring a little bit more diversity of musical voices in the composers we choose, including women composers, and varieties of music on any one program that are a little interesting or startling and that might tell a certain kind of story,” he said.

ASO kicks off its 75th season with an anniversary celebration concert this Saturday at the Virginia Theological Seminary. Tickets are available at www.alexsym.org.

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