Symphony Review: James Ross conducts Masterworks 7 with clarity, precision and fluency

By Larry Lapidus
The Spokesman-Review
March 10, 2024

In his remarks to the audience prior to Saturday night’s concert of the Spokane Symphony, James Ross, who, at the invitation of Music Director James Lowe, had flown in from Alexandria, Virginia, to serve as guest conductor, observed that the composer Jean Sibelius was “interested in long-term cycles of transformation.” This comment was helpful in understanding Sibelius’ music, and is also helpful in understanding both what the audience experienced on Saturday night, as well as the historical period in which we find ourselves.

Many of the assumptions and prejudices that grew around the performance and enjoyment of music during the 18th and 19th centuries are now being questioned, rejected and dismissed. “Standards” of how to dress, how to behave, and how to construct a program of concert music – standards that arose during a time of aristocratic privilege and sharp distinctions of class – are now giving way to a healthy desire for inclusivity and commitment to Duke Ellington’s dictum, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

Breaking down barriers that stand in the way of appreciating the joy that lies in every sort of music has been the life mission of James Ross, as was reflected in his selection of works for last weekend’s concerts. They began with a brilliantly written orchestral piece, “Umoja: An Anthem of Unity” (2019) by Valerie Coleman (1970-), an African American woman from Louisville, Kentucky.

This was followed by the Tabla Concerto (2011) by the Sri Lankan Canadian composer Dinuk Wijeratne (1978-) and the Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 43, composed in 1901-1902 by the Finnish Sibelius (1865-1957).

Despite the unfamiliar repertoire, the orchestra played at the absolute peak of their form, with a rich variety of tone, perfection of ensemble and instrumental virtuosity that illuminated every measure of the music and provided the audience with a constant flow of joy. James Ross, who has directed and trained orchestras all over the world, commented at the outset on the extraordinary quality of the orchestra, its high level of energy and admirable openness to new ideas, techniques and challenges. It must also be said that much of the outstanding quality of what we heard was due to the excellence of Ross’ direction, which was remarkable for its clarity, precision and fluency.

The evening’s most astonishing and unforgettable moments were provided by the tabla soloist in the Wijeratne Concerto, Sandeep Das, who is the most famous and celebrated figure in contemporary Indian classical music. He gave a lectured presentation before the beginning of the concerto in which he demonstrated his ability to bend the pitch, tone and dynamic level of the table, the small drum which plays an essential role in Indian classical music. He then vocalized words and syllables in a way that was suggestive of scat singing, sometimes at incredible speed, only to duplicate precisely on the tablas the pitch and tone of the sounds he was vocalizing. Dinuk Wijeratne was obviously aware that Das had this ability, as he calls for it in the third movement of his concerto.

While the virtuosity of Sandeep Das left a lasting impression, his was not the only part that called for and received virtuoso performance. All three works provided reminders of how fortunate we are to have Mateusz Wolski as concertmaster. The melody that Valerie Coleman employs in “Umoja” to represent unity among peoples was first sung by Wolski’s violin with a warmth and intensity of character that set the tone for the entire piece. Likewise, a duet between Wolski and Sandeep Das in the second movement of the Tabla Concerto was among the evening most affecting moments. Earlier in the same movement, a plaintive melody was intoned by what sounded to be a sitar. But where was the sitar? A quick scan of the stage didn’t pick one up; perhaps it was offstage? Recorded? But no; a more careful search located the source in the back corner of the orchestra: It was principal trumpet, Larry Jess! Muting his instrument, Jess uncannily reproduced the characteristic tone color of the sitar to complement a key passage in the concerto. Talk about openness to new challenges!

The sparkling orchestration and bright hues of both “Umoja” and the Tabla Concerto freshened the ears and opened the minds of many in the audience to aspects of Sibelius’ Second Symphony which may have lain unnoticed for years. Though this symphony is regarded as a fixture of the standard repertory, it still has its detractors and may still be hard to take, especially for those approaching it for the first time. As he proved in his First Symphony, Sibelius was perfectly capable of writing a smooth-flowing romantic symphony when he wanted to. Plainly, in the Second and most of his following symphonies he chose not to. The Second begins much as does Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “pastoral,” with a cheery, bucolic melody chirped by the winds. Abruptly, the chirping stops, to be replaced by anxious, gloomy mutterings in the low strings. These, too, cease suddenly, when the music moves into a remote key and takes up a different rhythm. Fragments of melody crop up, only to vaporize, while the music refuses to fix itself to a certain point on the emotional spectrum.

Experiencing this music after hearing the works of Coleman and Wijeratne, and after having the benefit of Ross’ and Das’ commentary, made it much easier to grasp the point that Sibelius was attempting to make: that consistency and predictability are not components we should not expect of either nature or human affairs, and that liberating ourselves from a demand for them allows us to find beauty and inspiration in new and surprising places. It may be for that reason that very many in the audience chose to transgress the bounds of settled practice by applauding – vigorously – after every movement of Sibelius’ Second Symphony, simply because they found beauty and inspiration there and felt moved to let the performers know about it. Indeed, there was beauty and inspiration to be found there. No one present should ever expect to hear a better performance of this great, barrier-breaking work.