By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra will open its 2019-2020 season on Oct. 5 with a diverse set of programs that will feature both familiar classics and abstract, adventurous pieces.
Music Director James Ross’ sophomore season will consist of five programs that he has entirely designed. Ross was named music director in May 2018, replacing longtime ASO Director Kim Kluge. Ross joined the ASO after the organization had already named the major works to be featured last season, but this year, he’s taken total charge.
“This season is really his from start to finish,” Melynda Wilcox, president of the ASO board of trustees, said. “It really shows his creativity and ingenuity and also the thoughtfulness he puts into putting a program together.”
Major themes that will traverse the entire season are diversity of composers and community influences.
“Jim has found some absolutely wonderful music,” George Hanson, ASO executive director, said. “I’ve been doing this since the 1980s, and I’m finding some pieces that are absolutely fascinating.”
The slate of composers to be featured includes men and women from a range of time periods, as well as various ethnic and geographic backgrounds. One demographic Ross is working to incorporate into his programming is female composers, many of whom were overshadowed in their times by their brothers and husbands who were also composers.
“We just noticed that something strange happens: History wipes out the presence and talents of these women composers, maybe partly because they’re women and the times they lived in and maybe also because they were kind of eclipsed in a certain way by their brothers and that just didn’t seem fair to me,” Ross said.
Ross shines a spotlight on some of these forgotten female composers, featuring five throughout the season.
“These are women who are not only good composers, but they have really interesting stories of their own,” Wilcox said. “And Jim will not only be introducing their music to us, but will be introducing their life experience.”
The season opener features “On the Cliffs of Cornwall,” by Ethel Smyth, an English composer and member of the women’s suffrage movement. As a tribute to Smyth’s story – and a way to incorporate the community – ASO invited the League of Women Voters to set up a table in the lobby of the concert so that attendees can register to vote.
“That idea right there is so much like an embodiment of the kind of connection that I am interested in helping make: making an orchestra whose programming and whose event making really feels specific to this city,” Ross said. “All arts institutions should really be local in how they connect rather than feeling that we should be national or international.”
The November program will also combine a female musician and community collaboration with “Old Buddhist Prayer” by Lili Boulanger, a composer who died at age 24. The Alexandria Choral Society and Fairfax Choral Society will join the ASO to perform the piece.
The fourth program will feature “Andante Moderato from String Quartet in G major” by Florence Price. “Florence Price [is] one of America’s great unknown treasures,” Ross said. “She was the first black woman composer to have a major symphony performed by a major American orchestra back in 1933 or 1934.”
Other highlights of the season include an “imaginary symphony” and a multi-media take on “The Nutcracker.”
While it’s not unusual to hear the twinkling notes of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” throughout the holiday season, ASO is taking the classic ballet to another level. The December program will feature two renditions of “The Nutcracker,” the well-known Tchaikovsky suite, as well as a Duke Ellington variation played alongside video that follows the story of a black girl from Harlem.
The season opens with the ambiguous “imaginary symphony,” which Ross described as “one of the strangest programming ideas that I’ve ever had.”
The symphony is a tribute to the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which Alexandria commemorated in June. While a typical symphony is written cohesively by one composer and expected to be played in a specific order, Ross’ “imaginary symphony” takes another route, piecing together movements from William Walton, Amy Beach, Ethel Smyth and Arthur Honnegger.
“It’s kind of a war sequence of one kind or another,” Ross said. “In my own mind, it’s a narrative that sounds like hubris before war and then pastoral, what you would destroy by warring, and then the third movement is like threat. It’s kind of water and kind of smashing each other but in a very gentle kind of way and then the last movement … is a total war march that comes to a harrowing climax.”
While some of Ross’ choices dip into the more adventurous realm, he said he worked to ensure the audience is also able to recognize some classic masterpieces. Some of the more well-known pieces to be featured this season include Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” and Schubert’s “Symphony No. 5.”
“The stranger our off-the-beaten-track ideas, the more we try to make sure that there’s something else paired with it on the program that will be pleasurable and attractive to people because they already know it and know how it goes,” Ross said. “You kind of try to make it balance out.”
The five programs in ASO’s main series will take place between October and May. The symphony will also perform several smaller concerts, like last year’s Bach, Brandenburgers and Brews performance.
For ticketing and performance information, visit www.alexsym.org.