Alexandria Symphony Orchestra prepares for grand return

Alexandria Symphony Orchestra prepares for grand return
Alexandria Symphony Orchestra (Photo/P.J. Barbour)

By Olivia Anderson |

After a year away from concert stages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra is finally preparing to raise the curtain for its 2021-2022 season.

Filled with unique collaborations, an emphasis on the power of transformation and a new education director, ASO’s upcoming year promises an exciting assortment of surprises and opportunities.

According to ASO Music Director James Ross, this season’s theme, “All Together Now,” was essentially the same one ASO announced back in March 2020 right before the pandemic hit, the world closed down, “and none of us could believe a whole season would just disappear.”

“It’s largely based on that vision,” Ross said. “We came up with what I think was a season with good bones, meaning there’s a good structure to it and a through line, and then as we didn’t get to do that season, our thought was with some adjustments, we can go back and just make this more potent version of the season we already had planned for last year that we never got a chance to do.”

The season will kick off on Oct. 2 and 3 with Beethoven’s Ninth (“Ode to Joy”), which Ross said has special status in the classical music world as a hallmark to begin or end performances. For ASO, this piece felt important to include because of the symphony’s collaboration with the Alexandria Choral Society, led by artistic director Brian Isaac, and the fact that it’s set to a new English text by former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer prize-winner Tracy K. Smith, who Carnegie Hall commissioned to take the words from “Ode to Joy” and come up with a new version for the times.

The performance also features an African American solo quartet sponsored by the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts.

“The voices of the Beethoven Nine will represent the message of this music being for everybody, specifically that African American performing artists are with us and vital,” Ross said.

Another collaboration this season is with the Alexandria Film Festival, with which ASO has commissioned six new films based on existing American symphonic pieces.

The performance, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” will feature film shorts such as Copland’s “Our Town” and “John Henry,” Griffes’ “Clouds” and William Grant Still’s “Manhattan Skyline” peppered throughout. Filmmakers received a given soundtrack and then had to create a film based on those songs.

“[It’s] kind of backwards from the way most people use sound in films. They come up with the idea from the film first, they do visual imagery, then they add in the music later, and we’re turning that backwards,” Ross said.

In December, the holiday program, “Home for the Holidays,” will be a three-way collaboration between ASO, the Alexandria Choral Society and BalletNOVA.

ACS will join ASO for choruses from Händel’s “Messiah” and lead the audience in popular holiday carols, while BalletNOVA dancers will accompany ASO during Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.”

“This is going to be a fairly traditional mix of familiar holiday tunes as well as a good representation of diversity,” Ross said. “ … Usually we would think about how to do something different that nobody’s ever done before, and we have a feeling [that because] last Christmas and holidays were so difficult for people to actually celebrate and there were no concerts to go to that it makes sense to us to have this concert include a fair amount of traditionally popular holiday music, and that will be especially joyous for us all.”

In general, Ross is known for his inclination toward adding his own personal flair and twist to popular works.

“I tend to do things that bring them to life as if classical music is new and fresh, like just out of the pen in a way, and anything I can do to get that sense of impact … is something I feel compelled to invent and make happen,” Ross said.

Early next year, audience members can expect to see pianist Sara Daneshpour with Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and violinist Dylana Jenson with her rendition of Barber’s Violin Concerto. ASO will present Brahms’ First Symphony and Brian Prechtl’s “Tribute” commissioned by Classical Movements’ Eric Helms New Music Program and featuring students from the Sympatico music program.

At the core of all of these upcoming performances is interweaving themes of both collaboration and transformation throughout, according to Ross.

“You get to watch and hear things turning from one thing into another. Sometimes it’s transforming from one language to another, sometimes it’s transforming where pieces are placed, it’s transforming a string quartet that has grown out into a large string section, it’s transforming from a world of darkness and not being able to speak fully to having a message that’s totally authentic,” Ross said.

On an organizational level, ASO is making some adjustments as well. Violinist Meredith Riley has been named as the company’s new education director where she will lead the Sympatico education program at John Adams Elementary School.

The program is in partnership with Alexandria City Public Schools, and began in 2012 as a manifestation of ASO’s commitment to education, Alexandria youth and affecting social change. Inspired by El Sistema, a free music education initiative in Venezuela, the Sympatico program offers opportunities for students to join ensembles where they can engage with peers, their school and their community. Sympatico students participate in more than 20 performances every year, both in school and in Alexandria.

In her new role, Riley said she is most excited about promoting diversity and equality in the arts. As a biracial woman, Riley emphasized her passion for changing the face of what is most often seen onstage.

“When I was in grade school and I went to the symphony … no one looked like me onstage, so I do think that the young generation grows up inherently believing they do not belong onstage because it’s hard to believe you do when no one looks like you,” Riley said.

Improving accessibility is an important priority for ASO this year, as is implementing COVID-19 safety precautions. In this vein, all of the concerts during the first half of the year will have no intermissions. The George Washington Masonic National Memorial will also be operating at 50% seating capacity for Sunday performances.

Another adjustment is moving most starting times to 7:30 p.m. because “the world wants to consume things a little bit earlier,” Ross said. This came about after providing surveys to audience members who indicated a preference for earlier start times.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in empty concert stages, virtual performances and a number of small outdoor concerts. This abrupt change, coupled with the new Delta variant, gave Ross a new appreciation for live music.

“Now I find myself getting suddenly moved because I’m hearing something live that I realize I haven’t heard anybody play for the last two years or something like that, and it creeps up on you. All of a sudden I find myself tearing up and not even quite knowing why. It can be simple things now,” Ross said.

Longtime ASO violinist Marlisa Woods said that when the pandemic first hit, she didn’t feel any sense of impending doom.

“When this whole thing started none of us thought it was going to last forever. We just thought, ‘Okay, things are going to be back to normal by summertime,’” Woods said. “That wasn’t the case.”

But after the realization set in that the pandemic would be around for a while, she, too, found a silver lining through virtual performances.

“Recording things and realizing, ‘No, I want to do that again and again and again’ – it really did refine my playing; it was kind of like having a microphone on my playing at all times,” Woods said.

Still, for ASO’s musicians and directors, there is nothing quite like the humanity and connection that comes with a live performance.

Now that ASO is brushing the dust off its stages and preparing for gleeful concert-goers to once again fill the seats, Ross said he’s most excited for the silence right before any concert begins.

“It’s a special moment. It’s a real transformation moment from silence into sound, and I think I’m especially looking forward to savoring the beginning of that direct musical contact with our audience and for our musicians,” Ross said.