James Ross is already making a mark as the new music director of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra. Known for innovative programming with the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and the National Orchestral Institute, Ross is infusing new energy into the ensemble for its 75th season. His latest program, heard on Saturday night at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall, had a first half devoted entirely to American composers and also put a spotlight on music by women.
The marquee event was the world premiere of a new Cello Concerto by Washington composer Jessica Krash. Written for a small orchestra of limited strings and single woodwinds, horn and trumpet, the piece is a vivid series of fantasy landscapes limned with canny economy. Bluesy turns and hints of Latin rhythms dot the texture, with especially wistful melodic writing in the slow movement.
Soloist Tanya Anisimova’s cello was miked, a decision that may have been partially responsible for intonation disparities between her and the orchestra. Her subtle playing explored many delicate sounds, even at the conclusion of the final movement, where the piece seemed poised to ramp up to a boisterous finale, only to dissolve into airy silence again.
Ross paired the new work with pieces by Leonard Bernstein, a composer to whom Krash owes a significant stylistic debt, and whose centenary year is finally coming to an end. In the “Overture to ‘West Side Story’ ” and especially the “Three Dance Episodes from ‘On the Town,’ ” the orchestra played with verve and a willingness to get dirty, if not always with absolute precision.
The concert concluded with a moody rendition of Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony, known as the “Scottish” because the composer sketched some of its themes while on a walking tour of Scotland. In a fun gesture to lovers of the Romantic landscape of Ossian and Walter Scott, the ASO hosted a group of red-tartaned bagpipers, whose playing outside before the concert guided this newcomer, unfamiliar with the venue, to the right location. The wave-tossed fortes featured the strongest playing, especially from the five horns, while more exposed runs in winds and strings lacked clarity.
Ross prefaced the piece by speaking about Mendelssohn’s older sister, Fanny, and how the world of classical music excluded women such as her for so long. He then invited ASO pianist Sophie Cook to perform Fanny Mendelssohn’s “Notturno in G Minor” as a prelude to the symphony. “We need to hear more of these voices we have ignored,” Ross opined, in a welcome gesture that bound the evening’s programming together.