James Ross Each Wednesday evening, El Punt Avui TV airs the series of interviews, Catalan Connections. Marcela Topor talked to James Ross, the new artistic director of the Orchestra Simfònica del Vallès.
I know you're starting your new job in 2017, but you're already in Barcelona preparing the ground a little bit.
Yes, exactly. I'm here to meet with the people from the orchestra and figure out the direction we're going to take when I start the job. I'll also take part as a guest conductor in a couple of the orchestra's programmes before I become the actual director.
But you're already familiar with the orchestra...
Actually, yes. I started connecting with this orchestra in 2002 and did concerts in the Palau, which was amazing. After a few other performances I felt they were family.
You are from Boston, but you live in Washington.
Yes, I've been all over the place. My life has brought me in a beautiful way along all these paths. Now I'm based just outside of Washington DC. I teach at the Maryland College Park, which is one of my commitments, the other commitments are up in New York City, where I help with the conducting programmes of the Juilliard school, which is part of the Lincoln Center. My last commitment in New York is through Carnegie Hall, as an orchestra conductor of the national youth orchestra of the US. So to be the conductor of the Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès will be my fourth project.
You began as a musician, playing the horn.
I started with a bunch of other little instruments: a guitar, a recorder... but with the horn I felt like I had found my voice. Why I chose the horn is a bit of a sad story: I come from a musical family, and my mother's brother played the horn, and sadly he died in an accident the day his first child was born. My mother was very fond of her brother and she encouraged me to play the horn. She didn't force me, but when I picked up the horn I found that it was my voice, somehow, and something was speaking through me and a real part of me was able to express itself in a way it couldn't have done with a trumpet, a piano or a guitar. After that I had some great music-making experiences, which led me to an orchestra based in Germany, which has one of the richest histories of music-making; their roots go back to Johan S. Bach. But I knew I really wanted to conduct, so before I got there my tutor encouraged me in that direction, and the path of conducting was the one which brought me to Spain, to La Coruña, and now has brought me here.
It must have been an interesting to live in Leipzig before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Yes, I felt like I was the only American in the country. I was certainly the only American in the history of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, so I felt that I was wearing the American flag and that I had to represent the whole country somehow. But I was also living amongst the special players who had opportunities that other people in Germany didn't have. The fact that they worked in the orchestra allowed them to travel, so they were able to see the rest of the world and inform themselves in a way that other people weren't allowed to. I loved staying in East Germany; I felt like I was at home there. And when I went back to the States, I had already turned into someone different with something different in my experience.
You also work with young musicians. You're actually the conductor of an orchestra that gathers young musicians from all over the States.
That's an amazing project. The national youth orchestras have existed, like here in Spain, for a long time already. In the States it was difficult because nobody really knew how to audition people from Alaska and Texas and California and Florida and Ohio and Maine... but thanks to social media and the opportunity that people have now to audition through electronic media they don't have to travel. So these 16-19 year olds are amazingly gifted and they do a tour every year. They've travelled to Russia, across the United States, China... As the director of the orchestra I choose the members and work with them to prepare them for these travels. I'm really proud of them.
What are your main objectives, in the following season, at the head of the OSV?
For me to try to find a way that professional musicians can continue to feel alive and grow through their job. They have this great enthusiasm and a great flexibility to travel all over the place and play lots of different kinds of music. They've also been in charge of their own organisation for decades, so they fight for their future. So I can best serve them by helping them to find their way forward. And I'll try to do that so by the end of my three-year contract we can all look back and say we have all grown up together, faced the challenges and something more has been asked of us than just playing the notes well. And that's the real goal. I want the reaching of an artistic standard to be with them as they develop as humans.