James Ross is leaving the University of Maryland. Many music lovers, I suspect, won’t understand the significance of that statement, and it’s a shame. While the classical music world talks about the future of orchestras — or the plight of orchestras — some of the most exciting work on the field’s future has been going on under the general audience’s radar in College Park, where Ross has been leading a pioneering orchestra program since 2001.
On Friday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Ross led the U-Md. orchestra in a valedictory concert, the last of the season.
The theme was “From sound to screen,” a relatively tame idea for Ross. It was Ross and his forces that brought you Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” with puppets and costumes in the orchestra — a project that went on to the New York Philharmonic — or the memorable “Afternoon of a Faun” for which the orchestra players memorized their parts and moved freely across the stage. (If you haven’t watched the video on YouTube, go do so now — it and the “Appalachian Spring” that the orchestra did in the same way a couple of years later are among the most remarkable performances I’ve seen from any orchestra, anywhere, ever.)
For many orchestras, of course, Friday’s program, ranging from Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” to a new piece by the young composer Henry Ross Wixon, might have been unusual enough.
It culminated with Kodaly’s “Háry János” suite accompanied by the world premiere of a film called “Blind Date” by Doug Fitch, the director and artist who has become a leading figure in the area of alternative orchestral experiences since he first collaborated with Ross on “Petrushka” in 2008.
It was a more conventional approach to boundary-pushing: a short film about a Tinder date-turned-fever-dream that had no actual relation to the subject of the piece — a perfectly amiable video, and the kind of thing that many other orchestras could pick up.
For someone so committed to shaking up the status quo, Ross seems a quiet figure, and an underrated one, despite a starry résumé that began when, as a horn player, he became principal horn of Leipzig’s fabled Gewandhaus orchestra (Kurt Masur gave him some of his first lessons in conducting) and includes stints working with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants and teaching at Juilliard.
On the podium, he exudes a gentle, almost collaborative authority, in a way that incites passionate admiration from his musicians and students — as demonstrated by a raft of personal videos aired on Friday during a surprise performance of excerpts from the final movement of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, beautifully conducted by one of Ross’s former students, John Devlin (now founder of the Gourmet Symphony and a cover conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra).
A question raised by Ross’s work is whether it’s possible to explore such new paths within the framework of a professional orchestra.
The New York Philharmonic’s performance of “Petrushka” and other subsequent collaborations with Fitch showed that it can be done, to a degree.
His work, Ross said in an email exchange, can be taken “as a model of a kind of work or thinking that . . . in some cases has clearly begun to infuse professional orchestras. The impulses just have to be uncovered within each organization . . . and best if that impetus comes from within the orchestra itself. It may not actually work if a management or a conductor tries to impose it . . . Simple things like . . . sharing the process of art-making with audiences, not just the results, are more likely to be better starting points.”
Ross is about to test the waters himself; in September, he is taking over as music director of the Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès in Spain.
“I do have a curiosity to see what it might be like to conduct more than I talk about conducting,” he said. His new orchestra is owned by its players and earns more than 70 percent of its budget from ticket sales.
“They need every concert to be a unique and memorable experience for their audience,” Ross said.
“Anything that helps develop a more personal connection between those who come and those who are on stage is very helpful” — a statement that holds true, these days, for the field at large.