Alexandria Symphony Orchestra turns 80

Alexandria Symphony Orchestra turns 80
Courtesy Photo

By Laura Van Pate | 

The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 80th birthday in style with four original, commissioned pieces that will be performed throughout the ASO’s season. 

“80 is the new 30, except livelier,” James Ross, ASO’s music director, said in an interview with the Times. “The ASO is celebrating its Oak Anniversary in big ways and small ways. We’re excited to share the new original pieces with the city of Alexandria while also playing some classics such as Mozart.” 

A local institution celebrating a milestone seems about right for a historic city like Alexandria. 

“For a city like Alexandria where the old and new seem to mix, I’m proud that we’re celebrating 80 years of our existence with a spicy combination of our new original works while also playing beloved classics,” Ross continued. 

ASO was started in 1943 during World War II by music teacher Lucie Neale Landen, who recruited 40 amateur musicians to play music together, according to the ASO website. The orchestra was originally called the “Alexandria Civic Orchestra.” 

It would be 10 more years before the ACO became the ASO. 

“The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra was officially incorporated in 1954 with an annual budget of $1,200,” according to the ASO website. 

Wendell Margarve, Ph.D., who was director of the Washington Musical Institute, became ASO’s music director in 1948 and led the orchestra into the mid-1960s. The orchestra’s next director, George Steiner, Ph.D., took the first steps toward professionalizing the organization. 

“Under Steiner’s influence, the ASO introduced its first subscription series, performed at Albohm Auditorium on the campus of T.C. Williams High School,” ASO’s website reads. 

Kim Allen Kluge followed Steiner as ASO’s director in 1988 and was there for almost three decades before departing in 2016. 

“Under Kluge’s direction during the 1990s, the ASO became a professional orchestra. In partnership with the City of Alexandria, the ASO significantly expanded its programs and concerts in the schools and began performing in the Alexandria Birthday Celebration concert on the waterfront each July,” according to the ASO website. 

After departing from the ASO, Kluge became renowned for writing music scores for movies including 2016’s “Silence,” directed by Academy Award winning director Martin Scorcsese, 2018’s “Driven” and 2019’s “Peel.” 

“Kluge did so much for the ASO,” Melinda Kernc, ASO’s director of development and marketing, said in an interview. “He transitioned it to a fully professional orchestra composed of the area’s top musicians. The ASO wouldn’t be this big now if it wasn’t for Kluge.” 

Ross, ASO’s current music director, has been with the orchestra since 2018. He has taught orchestral activities at the University of Maryland and has worked with other orchestras such as the Cuban American Youth Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s Young. 

“In the spring of 2018, the ASO completed a two-year international search selecting James Ross as its fifth Music Director,” according to the ASO website. “Ross has introduced new concert experiences, audience engagement and nontraditional venues and formats to the community, attracting new audiences and growing the ASO family.” 

The first original piece in the ASO anniversary celebration was “Toast,” which was performed at the ASO’s opening concert, “ASO at 80-oh!,” on September 30 and October 1. “ASO at 80-oh” featured musician Elissa Lee Koljonen on the violin. 

“The original verses span from nostalgic reflections on moments shared around music with family and friends to Dr. Seuss-inspired musings about the humorous personalities within orchestras,” Lester Green, Toast’s composer, said in a press release. 

Green also played the piano for “Toast” at “ASO at 80-oh!” on both dates. “ASO at 80-oh!” included other pieces such as Quinn Mason’s “Toast of the Town,” Johannes Brahms’ “Violin Concerto” and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4.” 

ASO’s next 80th-anniversary concert will be “Going Home,” to be held on November 4 and 5. Musician Stephen Seifert will also play the mountain dulcimer in “Going Home.” 

“Going Home,” will feature the original piece “Tscenacomoco” written by Native American composer Dawn Avery. “Tscenacomoco” is about Alexandria’s Native American history and honors the Powhatan tribe. 

“This work employs contemporary performance techniques and soaring melodies that reflect Indigenous soundscapes, decolonizing strategies in composition, and the lands and peoples of Tscenacomoco,” Avery said in a press release. 

“Going Home” will also include performances of Margaret Bonds’ “Montgomery Variations,” Conni Ellisor’s “Blackberry Winter” and Antonín Dvořák’s “Symphony No.9.” It is also the 80th-anniversary concert that hits home the most, according to ASO’s Board of Trustees president Nancy Davenport. 

“Going Home reminds me of the Appalachian Mountains, which is near where I grew up and it really touches my heart,” Davenport said in an interview. 

“Do Not Go Gentle” is ASO’s next 80th-anniversary concert, scheduled for February 10 and 11. The concert features the Cantate Concert Choir with Victoria Gau as the music director, Mandy Brown singing soprano, Cara Schaefer singing alto and Joshua Coleman singing bass. 

“Do Not Go Gentle” will include the original piece “Aurora” by composer Milad Yousufi, which draws from Yousufi’s experience as an Afghan refugee and is also inspired by a poem dedicated to his mother. 

“I have always dreamed of writing music for the next generation of artists in Afghanistan, to do what Bartók – a Hungarian composer from 1899 to 1945 – did for his country as a composer and ethnomusicologist,” Yousufi said in a press release. 

“Do Not Go Gentle” will also include performances of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Anna Clyne’s “Sound and Fury” and W.A. Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor.” 

“Shuffle and Deal” is the final ASO 80th anniversary concert, scheduled for April 20 and 21. The performance will feature musician Aldo López- Gavilán on piano. 

“Shuffle and Deal” will include composer Jorge Amado’s original piece “Alexandria Shuffle,” as well as Leonard Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes from On the Town,” Aldo López-Gavilán’s “Emporium” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No.5.” 

Amado dedicated “Alexandria Shuffle” to Old Town Alexandria while also using his Cuban heritage as an influence. 

“I used traditional rhythms of Cuban music, such as son, mambo, and rumba,” Amado said in a press release. “I also wanted to represent American music through the influence of Leonard Bernstein.” 

ASO is ready to share these original pieces with Alexandria. 

“All of the programs have amazing pieces,” ASO’s executive director George Hanson said. “All these people that support ASO are the reason we’re still here. This is a love letter to the Alexandria community.” 

An additional ASO concert, that’s not part of the 80th anniversary celebration, is a holiday performance on December 16 and 17. “Holiday with a Twist” will feature musician Joshua Banbury on Baritone along with Chris Ulman, the world whistling champion. 

“I really think this concert’s season will be looked on in the future as a momentous season for the ASO,” Davenport said in an interview. 

Saturday concerts are at Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. Sunday concerts are at George Washington Masonic Memorial at 3 p.m. 

Tickets cost $20 for adults, $15 for students, and $5 for youth 18 and under. Subscription packages to see all five concerts cost $86. Military, senior and group discounts are also available. 

The Virginia Commission for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alexandria Commission for the Arts and the Red Charitable Trust all support this upcoming ASO season. 

ASO’s staff includes Hanson as executive director, Ryan Jordan as director of operations, Davenport as Board of Trustees president, Kernc as director of development and marketing, Susan Kelly as personnel manager and Craig B. Teer as stage manager.