Alexandria Symphony returns with ‘Beethoven’s Fifth & Rhapsody’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the Alexandria Symphony (Part 1)

The Alexandria Symphony had performed consistently for 78 years.

Suddenly, it found itself sidelined for the past 18 months due to the pandemic.

“The essence of what we do as an orchestra is put lots of people on stage, have them blow air around each other, and try to do it in front of hundreds or thousands of people,” Music Director James Ross told WTOP. “We had to turn things into chamber-music performances outside, retirement homes, parks, backyards, so we invented a new way.”

This weekend, the symphony triumphantly returns to indoor concerts at Northern Virginia Community College and George Washington Mesonic Memorial for its 2021-2022 season.

The season kicks off with “Beethoven’s Fifth & Rhapsody” on Saturday and Sunday:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
Coleman: Umoja: Anthem of Unity

“The fifth symphony has something iconic, moving, exciting, powerful, meaningful and overcoming,” Ross said. “We also added ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with a great pianist named Michelle Cann … We’re also playing Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ to start the program and a piece I’m proud of discovering by Valerie Coleman called ‘Umoja,’ a Swahili word for unity.”

It teams with the Alexandria Film Fest for “Pictures at an Exhibition” on Nov. 6 and Nov. 7:

Jennifer Higdon: Blue Cathedral
Charles Tomlinson Griffes: Clouds
Aaron Copland: John Henry and Our Town
William Grant Still: Manhattan Skyline (from American Sketches)
Charles Ives: Housatonic at Stockbridge (from Three Places in New England)
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

“We put out a call for filmmakers to invent a film with this as your given soundtrack,” Ross said. “Those six films connected to Mussorgsky’s great ‘Pictures at an Exhibition.’ … There’s one film based on Alexandria, a piece by Copland called ‘Our Town’ that he wrote for Thornton Wilder’s play. Our town is Alexandria, so we asked the filmmaker to capture the spirit of this city.”

After that, it’s “Home for the Holidays” on Dec. 17 and Dec. 19:

Handel: “Overture” from Music for the Royal Fireworks and “Pastoral Symphony” from Messiah
Tchaikovsky: Selections from The Nutcracker
Ellington: Selections from The Nutcracker Suite
Anderson: A Christmas Festival
Bach: Gavotte, Bourrée and Gigue from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major

“That’s a holiday festival,” Ross said. “Our ideas went back to being more traditional because so many people have not been able to see any live concerts. … The familiar doesn’t feel familiar right now after the whole COVID event. … Some baroque music by Handel from ‘Messiah’ and Bach with excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ performed and danced live by BalletNova.”

The new year brings “Rachmaninov Rhapsody” on Feb. 12 and 13:

Sibelius: Finlandia
Beethoven: Quartet for Strings in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (arranged for string orchestra)
George Walker: Lyric For Strings
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

“‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,’ which many people know from a famous tune that comes in the middle — it’s the main melody of the piece turned upside down,” Ross said. “Our soloist for that concert is Sara Daneshpour, who is actually a Washington native. … Then the other big piece is a string quartet by Beethoven. … Op. 131 is probably his greatest string quartet.”

The season closes with “Barber & Brahms” on April 23 and April 24:

Prechtl: Tribute
Barber: Violin Concerto, Op. 14
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

“That’s with a violin soloist named Dylana Jenson with whom I have a long history,” Ross said. “She’s going to play the violin concerto by Samuel Barber as a main part of the first half of the program, then we’re going to finish the program with Brahms’ most powerful symphony.”

Attendees must provide proof of vaccination or a negative test. Masks are also required.

“The overcoming that you can hear in music in pieces like Brahms’ No. 1 or Beethoven’s No. 5, that would have special significance given all of the frightening things that have happened around us. … When you hear that karmically represented through notes and music, it really connects. These are great pieces in any time, but I really hope they will feel meaningful for everybody.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the Alexandria Symphony (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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