Aaron Diehl will join New Jersey Symphony for season-opening concerts

nj classical listings october


Aaron Diehl will perform with the New Jersey Symphony at NJPAC in Newark, Oct. 14; and the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Oct. 15.

After last season’s starry centennial celebrations, New Jersey Symphony will launch its second century with the clean, understated artistry of Aaron Diehl.

The elite jazz pianist and composer will open the orchestra’s 2023-24 season with William Grant Still’s “Out of the Silence” and Duke Ellington’s “New World a-Comin’,” Oct. 14 at NJPAC in Newark and Oct. 15 at the State Theatre in New Brunswick.

Robert Spano will conduct the opening weekend, which also will include Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja, Anthem for Unity” and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”

The pairing of works to be performed by Diehl blurs the lines between musical genres and spotlights the diverse cultural representation of influential Black composers in America, past and present. Diehl — who last performed with the symphony in 2018, in a program of George Gershwin and Florence Price — sits at the intersection of jazz and classical repertoire, and moves freely between them with virtuosity and lyricism. The Still selection falls on the symphonic end and proposes a mystical, meditative mood while the Ellington work will cross into swingier jazz repertoire.



Diehl aims to bring out the subtle shades of each piece and unite the common threads that are present in each composer’s musical style.

“When it comes to the approach to the instrument and the sound, I think about what the music is trying to convey and what kind of emotive qualities I’m trying to communicate,” he says. “I think there are just significant differences, not even in regard to genre, but in terms of how I’m trying to express this music.

“I feel like the Still is very contemplative and introspective, and that’s one end of the spectrum, and at the other end is Ellington, which is very virtuosic in going between various moods and his piano concerto. I want to say the overarching theme is almost like urgency to the sound and feeling of the music. And so, just being able to fluidly go between the two very drastically different moods is probably the biggest challenge.”

Still’s “Out of the Silence” (1940) is a short lyric melody for piano and strings that blends traditional classical elements with moodier blues. It opens with a brief thematic statement and shapes the melodic development around post-tonal techniques.

“It’s a very beautiful piece taken from a set of works called ‘Seven Traceries,’ which are sort of seven character pieces that Still wrote for piano,” Diehl says.

The symphonic idiom of the work bridges to Ellington’s “New World a-Comin.’” The 14-minute rhapsody for soloists and orchestra is reminiscent of Ellington’s big band hallmarks. Ellington composed the work around traditional jazz forms and blended it with a virtuosic and improvisatory piano solo, though Diehl says he won’t do much in the way of improvisation.


The title takes its name from a book by Roi Ottley about the lives of African Americans in Harlem in the 1920s and ‘30s, and their hope for a better future. Ellington built on Ottley’s vision by proposing a “new world” without war, greed or categorization.

Diehl has played the piece over the last couple of years with different ensembles. Here, the symphony will use Maurice Peress’ 10-minute arrangement that premiered in 1943 at Carnegie Hall.

“There are a number of versions of Duke playing it and sometimes he’d play it solo piano,” Diehl says. “He originally wrote it for his own band and then Luther Henderson orchestrated it — I want to say in the early 1970s or the late ’60s, if I recall — and there’s a recording of this version with (the) Cincinnati (Symphony Orchestra) and Duke Ellington playing the piano.

“What’s interesting is that this is not actually a very, very well known piece unless you’re sort of in the Ellington cognoscenti. You don’t hear it all that often. Even people who are quote-unquote ‘jazz fans’ might not have heard this piece.”

Instrumentation calls for a jazz trio, which will feature the Aaron Diehl Trio (featuring Ben Wolfe on bass and Aaron Kimmel on drums) in a supportive role with the orchestra.


Wolfe was Diehl’s professor at the Juilliard School in New York (where Diehl earned a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies degree) and has played with Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall, Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis.

“One of the things Ben always told me when playing in an ensemble, which I never forget and I always quote him on, is, ‘When you’re playing in a band, listen to yourself last,’ ” Diehl says. “He always emphasized the importance of listening to everyone else and to find importance in everyone else’s part before finding the importance in your own part. The idea is that you, as a musician, want to be supportive of everyone else with whom one is playing, and make them sound better than they already sound. And that also informs how your part fits in with the bigger picture.”

Diehl met Kimmel through Juilliard as well. Both attended during the same generation. Kimmel studied with Kenny Washington, and has played with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Benny Green.

“One of the things that’s so remarkable about Aaron is his sound on the instrument and how sensitive and thorough he is with his touch, and that’s something that’s very rare when it comes to drummers,” says Diehl.

Diehl has been a student of Ellington’s music since his childhood in Columbus, Ohio.

“Duke Ellington has definitely been a very important part of my musical journey,” he says. “I’m going back to when I was a kid, my grandfather being a trombonist and pianist, he taught me some of Duke Ellington’s classic standards. Then later on, when I was in high school, I was in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition, and that featured Duke Ellington’s work.”

At age 17, after becoming a finalist in the competition, Diehl was invited to tour Europe with the Wynton Marsalis Septet.

Another important influence was Mary Lou Williams. Diehl and the New York-based collective The Knights recently released Zodiac Suite, the first studio recording of Williams’ neglected jazz-ensemble work of 12 movements, which he arranged for a full chamber orchestra.

“Williams was a dynamic and influential pianist and composer,” Diehl says, “and she wrote the Zodiac Suite in the mid-’40s. This is a particular orchestration that she did that premiered on New Year’s Eve in 1945, but she didn’t really do anything with this arrangement beyond the premiere.

“During the pandemic, I had the idea of figuring out how to resurrect the arrangement, to speak and to breathe new life into it. I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful collaborative partner in the Knights orchestra and we were able to, over the course of a year and a half or so, workshop the suite a few times and perform it and then ultimately record it.”


The concert will open with Coleman’s “Umoja” (which means “unity” in Swahili), a 10-minute orchestral tone poem with a jazz-inspired call-and-response. Coleman composed the work in 1997 as a short piece for women’s choir and over the years, she has expanded it and arranged it into various orchestral and band settings. Like Diehl, her musical identity has one foot in the classical world and the other in jazz.

“Valerie’s a great flutist and composer,” Diehl says. “I played some of her pieces with Brandon Patrick George, who’s another flutist in Imani Winds (the wind quintet Coleman founded in 1997). I’m really looking forward to hearing the piece.”

Dvořák’s “New World” symphony was influenced by the African American and Native American music that the Czech composer was introduced to through his Black assistant during his time in New York. When the piece premiered in 1893, the Black spirituals and melodies woven into the score was a radical concept, but it has since become an anthem to the diverse strengths of American multiculturalism.

The 2023-24 opening weekend is a low-key departure from last season’s centennial roll-out with luminary headliner Yefim Bronfman, in Rachmaninoff’s Third.

The 100-year milestone season, which featured superstar guest artists and monumental masterworks across five mainstage venues, drew a 57 percent increase in concert attendance compared to the first post-pandemic season of 2021–22, the symphony said in a press release.

In late August, however, the symphony announced cuts to the 2023-24 season as it confronts “macro- and microeconomic challenges” stemming from the volatile pandemic seasons, which included a consolidation of its classical series concert weekends from 14 to 11 and a reduction of its administrative staff by 15.4 percent.

A variety of factors drove the cutbacks. Gabriel van Aalst, the symphony’s president and CEO since 2016, said in a press release that cuts were proactive to soften the impact of “recent cost increases of almost 30 percent and audience numbers that are only 75 percent of our pre-pandemic seasons.”

Other New Jersey nonprofit arts organizations are feeling the squeeze as well. Last month, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts rolled out a plan aimed at long-term sustainability over the next five years in response to the pandemic’s upheaval. The agency, a division of the New Jersey Department of State, is the largest arts funder in the state.

Many are using this moment to create more sustainable models, and reshape how they support and serve their surrounding communities.

As the New Jersey Symphony enters its 101st season — led by music director Xian Zhang in her eighth season, with a contract extension through 2028 — it remains committed to spotlighting conductors, soloists and repertoire that reflects core values of equity, diversity and inclusion. Modern works by new and often local composers will be staged alongside classic masterworks.



Diehl is aware of the challenges artists face as they emerge from the pandemic, though he hasn’t noted much impact in his own circles.

“I think musicians of all stripes have been trying to navigate the post-pandemic environment and I think depending on where you’re at regionally or what stage you are in your career, it’s a complicated environment that we’re all in right now.

“For me, the biggest challenge probably is being able to find effective ways of bringing my music and what I love and what I value to listeners, and hopefully they find value in that. That’s why it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to play with the New Jersey Symphony at NJPAC and to have that opportunity to bring the music that I love to listeners in New Jersey.”

The New Jersey Symphony and guest pianist Aaron Diehl will perform at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m.; and the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Oct. 15 at 3 p.m. Visit njsymphony.com.


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