Classical songs, modern meanings

Classical songs, modern meanings
Jim Ross, the ASO’s music director, interweaves different stories from classical and contemporary works into ASO concerts. (Photo/Alexandria Symphony Orchestra)

By Liana Hardy |

One year ago, conductor Negin Khwalpak and her husband Hamid Habib Zada fled Afghanistan for the United States with only the clothes on their back. This November, Khwalpak and Zada will both perform at Alexandria’s Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall for hundreds of audience members, alongside the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra.

Khwalpak, the only female conductor – who led the only all-female orchestra – in Afghanistan’s history, will conduct two Afghan pop songs from the 70s and 80s in the ASO’s “Afghan Days, Arabian Nights” concert this fall. Khwalpak’s husband Zada will play the tabla, an Afghan classical music instrument, and poets will recite Afghan poetry while the ASO performs the well-known symphonic suite Scheherazade, conducted by ASO Music Director Jim Ross.

The ASO is known for mixing the traditional with the nontraditional in their concert repertoire – a practice that most professional orchestras do not explore, according to Ross. Their 2022-2023 concert season, which starts in October and lasts until April, reflects this mixture.

“The title of the season is just all about telling stories through music,” ASO Executive Director George Hanson said. “I would say that the calling card of ASO is that we present an extraordinarily diverse palette, as in colorful palette, of music – including the traditional, but we do it in untraditional ways.”

The ASO will begin the season with their “All Hearts Vie for Joy!” concert, which combines one of the most well-known pieces in classical music history, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia and contemporary poet Tracy K. Smith’s English version of Beethoven’s original German text.

Following a holiday concert that features traditional favorites such as Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, the ASO will perform Haydn, Mozart and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in February, and then end the season in April with a concert that combines Grieg’s piano concerto, Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring and an overture by Cuban composer Guido López-Gavilán.

According to Ross, the ASO’s goal is to connect treasured pieces from the past to world events occurring in present time.

“I’m taking something that’s old, mixing it in a hopefully creative way with things that tie us to our own time, just to make sure that we hear pieces as something that really connect to who we are right now. Not just historical reenactments, let’s say, of what the piece might have meant 200 years ago or 100 years ago when it was written,” Ross said.

For the “Afghan Days, Arabian Nights” concert, Ross wants to connect Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 19th century piece Scheherezade, with the stories of Khwalpak and Zada, as well as the other Afghan refugees they represent. Scheherazade, which is based on the story of “One Thousand and One Nights,” depicts a woman who must come up with fantastical, continuous tales every night to please her husband, a king who will kill his wives if he gets bored with them.

Ross wants to pair this story with the stories of female Afghans told through classical poetry, and with the musical performances of Khwalpak and Zada, so that the piece will better resonate with the audience.

“There’s this kind of horrible violence inherent in that relationship that doesn’t show up much in the piece, because the piece just sounds so imaginative and beautiful. And that’s because it’s sort of depicting the stories themselves rather than the life and the fear of the woman who’s needing to tell them,” Ross said. “So my idea was to take the first half of the program and connect the idea of women and potential abusive relationships somehow, and kind of put that in constructive contrast with the Rimsky-Korsakov in the second half.”

Ross also wants the ASO to connect with wider audiences through its inventive concerts, creating “big tent” events that will include underrepresented communities and attract audience members who are not necessarily traditional symphony-goers or classical music-lovers.

“The great thing about these concerts, or any concert in a way, is it can bring people who all have different reasons for being there. Like in November, I’m hoping we have at least 200 to 300 people there at the concert who are only there because there’s going to be some Persian spoken at the concert, and the two Afghan refugees are people that are kind of like them,” Ross said.

The ASO Sympatico program provides children from John Adams Elementary School with access to free classical music training. (Photo/Alexandria Symphony Orchestra)

According to Hanson, the orchestra has already begun to attract more diverse audiences, with fall 2021 ticket sales surpassing pre-pandemic sales due to a wave of new audience members. Hanson credits the recent successes to ASO’s new programming, which features a greater diversity among its musicians and pieces.

“We saw lots of people we had never seen before. I mean, new faces in the sense of people we didn’t know, but also a significantly more diverse audience. And that was because of the diversity of our programming,” Hanson said.

Ross’ unique repertoire can pose a challenge to musicians, due to the difficulty of combining so many different pieces into one concert program. Claudia Chudacoff, ASO’s concertmaster and first violin, said that she is often surprised when Ross can mesh older classical works with an array of contemporary pieces.

“Sometimes I look at a program and I think, ‘How is that going to go with that?’ to be completely honest,” Chudacoff said. “I go, ‘That looks so desperate, it’s such a weird juxtaposition.’ But then [Ross] actually has this incredible gift of connecting, he makes connections through a narrative and suddenly, you see, ‘Okay, I can see this theme, like that does connect.’”

In addition to regular season concerts, the ASO leads a music education program at John Adams Elementary School, ASO Sympatico, that provides students free musical training for up to five hours each week. In partnership with El Sistema, an organization created in Venezuela that aims to keep students out of gangs, ASO Sympatico engages with many kids that would otherwise not have access to classical music training and musical instruments, according to Hanson.

“We’re not just dropping in on a school and performing a 45 minute concert. We are training kids, we’re putting instruments in their hands and developing their creativity. And it has an incredible impact on things like, for example, attendance and grades,” Hanson said.

While the ASO Sympatico program had fewer participants last year due to the pandemic – only 45 students were able to attend the all-virtual music practices – the program hopes to return to 100-plus students now that COVID-19 is less of a risk.

For ASO musicians like Marlisa Woods, the ASO’s second violin, the ASO Sympatico program is an extraordinary element of the orchestra that reflects their core values of inclusivity and community engagement – and also strikes a more personal chord.

“It especially resonates with me because my dad is from Honduras and my mom is from Puerto Rico, and my dad, his dream was always to be a professional musician. But there just weren’t those opportunities in Honduras, so he ended up doing something that he’s not passionate about,” Woods said. “And my mom remembers seeing a girl carrying a violin case to school, and my mom would walk to school and she would just think, ‘Wow, I’d really love to do that, but we could never afford that.’ So it’s really meaningful and cool that she had a daughter, me, that ended up playing the violin.”

Ross hopes that with the ASO as a model, the future of classical music will be more inclusive – of both different audiences and diverse musical works – and embrace messages that connect with contemporary audiences and experiences.

“I would like our arms to be seen as really wide open,” Ross said. “It’s great that classical music has changed a lot over the last couple of years – thankfully, in the direction of trying to make sure that we are truly inclusive in who’s on stage, what we’re playing, who we can justifiably attract to be in our audience and try an make everybody feel comfortable.”