New Jersey Symphony music director Xian Zhang promises that its centennial 2022-23 season, which will begin in October, will be big and bold. “We really want to go all of the way to celebrate,” the Chinese-American conductor tells me over the phone. “It’s an amazing number, really, and it’s probably the most ambitious season, at least since I started here.”
The milestone season will give audiences a clear idea of where New Jersey’s statewide orchestra is headed with special events, world premieres and distinguished guests such as Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Yo-Yo Ma, Yefim Bronfman and Daniil Trifonov.
The orchestra will present monumental masterworks that haven’t been played in more than a decade, including Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony, and it will premiere four new commissions written for the centennial. “That’s very special,” Zhang says. “We usually do commissions but not this many, so this is something extra to celebrate.”
This will be Zhang’s seventh season as music director after joining the Newark-based organization in 2016. In March 2022, her contract was extended through the 2027-28 season. Under her leadership, the symphony has strengthened its commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion in the arts and equity within the American orchestral field.
“I do sense there’s been a big change, with new commissions, with the emphasis on programs like The Colton Fellowship, and with inviting more diverse artists and composers of color,” Zhang says. “It’s wonderful to see.” The Colton Fellowship is an in-house, excellence-based program that supports early-career Black and/or Latinx musicians.
Founded in 1922, the orchestra has a history of innovative programming, artistic excellence and a broad commitment to its local communities through accessible programs. The postwar period ushered in an expansion of repertoire and an emphasis on world-class guest artists.
Zhang recognizes the symphony’s equitable legacy and its evolution under her trust. “It’s because of the philosophy that’s already in the orchestra and in the institution, not only from the musicians but from Daniel (resident artistic catalyst, Daniel Bernard Roumain), from Gabriel (president and CEO Gabriel van Aalst) and from the staff. There’s a core belief that we should strive for this, and it did happen in the past five years. But this philosophy was already here before I became the music director. And it helps me in a way, too, that after I recognized it, we really advanced to it. And with the pandemic, and with the whole national wave politically and societally, we aim towards equality, diversity and inclusion.
“I think what really was leading this change in culture for this orchestra was the attitude, and the philosophy of the institution itself is to be diverse and inclusive. New Jersey is already and has always been on the forefront of this. And with that leading us, including myself … when I joined, I realized this is very different from my previous orchestra in Italy, which was very conventional. The Italian culture is much more traditional.”
Zhang lived in Milan from 2009 to 2016, heading one of Italy’s historic symphonic orchestras, L’Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, as its first female music director.
Born in Dandong, China, in 1973, she trained at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. In 1998, she pursued her doctorate in conducting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. The turning point came in 2002, when she won the first prize in the Maazel/Vilar Conductor’s Competition. In 2005, she was appointed associate conductor at the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel.
On the podium, she is cohesive and without limits. She delivers clean, precise phrases and coaxes energetic, exuberant sound from her musicians. There is authority and discipline in everything she does, and a complete lack of pomposity.
With her emphasis on teamwork, her musical sensibilities have evolved with her musicians. “When I first came, I found the orchestra a beautiful orchestra,” she says. “They played Mozart and Haydn. They played beautifully in the classical realm. Very good and clean.”
She says the core of musicians is 63, which is not very big, so her ambition is to expand the general scope of sound into a wider range and variety. “It’s my wish, and I think it’s happened already, is to expand that range to further extremes. From the much softer, much more precise and lighter sounds, style-wise, to bigger sounds. To stretch it and to make it fuller. At times, for certain repertoires, it can be bigger, and also, because our hall is so big!” (The orchestra’s home base is Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark, though it also presents concerts at The State Theatre in New Brunswick, The Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank and Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium.)
“I’m happy to see that expansion and, in a way, I think it makes our music-making more convincing because you have more color and different types of sound to offer our audience.”
That big, unbashful color should be on full display during the season-opening programs in October. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto (in Newark, Oct. 7; Red Bank, Oct. 8; and Morristown, Oct. 9) is bridged by Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony (in Newark, Oct. 20 and 23; and Princeton, Oct. 21).
At the opening concert, pianist Yefim Bronfman will show off his thrilling virtuosity in Rachmaninoff’s Third. “He’s a great old friend who I knew back in New York when I was with the New York Philharmonic,” Zhang says. “He always came to play as a guest, and I think he is one of the most phenomenal pianists of our time.”
The concert opens with Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner,” composed in 2014 to mark the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Montgomery had originally planned to write a new work to open the season, but it fell to scheduling limitations. The acclaimed composer is currently the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Zhang calls “Banner” a very clever and challenging work for strings. “Her piece starts with the second half of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ not at the beginning. She makes quite a statement. The composer herself has said it’s a continuation of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ sort of her own version of her understanding of the national anthem.
“The point of view of why she wrote the piece is that she said it’s all about a contradiction. For her, it’s what the piece meant to her as an African American artist in her time. I thought that was interesting and I think the audience will make that comparison as well. We get a good, clear mental map of what we understand in terms of history, where we are as a society, how much progress was made, and how much more we need to make in the coming years.”
Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring Suite,” an orchestral suite from the ballet composed for Martha Graham, will be danced by Nimbus Dance at the Newark and Morristown performances (though not at Red Bank due to space limitations). Zhang describes the choreography as brilliant, dynamic and beautiful.
“The Copland choreography looks very expressive and is a lot of fun for the audience. There’s lots of rhythm and character among the dancers. Sam did a great job designing the movements.” (Samuel Pott is the founding artistic director of the Jersey City-based Nimbus Dance.)
Brahms’ sprawling, lush Fourth Symphony, to be performed Oct. 20-21 and 23, was originally planned for 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic, and Zhang had been trying to return to it ever since.
Its inclusion is a nod to the rich, harmonic Middle-European pieces she regularly performed during her Italian tenure. The core strengths of her symphonic repertory are Romantic masters such as Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. She has an affinity for Brahms and cites him as her favorite composer.
“For me, Brahms is the most profound and deepest musician there is. For some musicians, we feel very connected to his work, including myself, while some don’t. Sometimes as musicians for the orchestra, and for all musicians as well, we need to play German repertoire. That’s where all symphonic music, in a way, was founded. It grew out of that tradition. I think we balance that pretty well.”
Esteemed pianist Michelle Cann will play Richard Strauss’s “Burleske in D minor” for piano and orchestra. Zhang invited Cann after performing with her at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa with the NAC Orchestra last year. “It was my first time working with her and it was great,” she says. “She was so musical, intelligent, and her performance was brilliant and very elegant.”
Between melodic works, including Dorothy Chang’s “Northern Star,” there will be readings of contemporary poetry from participants in the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
The Copland-Montgomery-Rachmaninoff programing is upbeat and proposes new ideas about American music, while the Chang-Strauss-Brahmns concert will cross into more profound territory.
“This second program is a different color than the opening weekend,” Zhang says. “It’s very refined in that way of Strauss and Brahms on the German side of repertory. You may say one is brighter and the other one is a little bit darker, or a bit heavier, but put them together and it’s really complementary, for the audience as well. Concertgoers will enjoy both.
“The pairing of concerts is a good example of how much innovation we have, including new works and the new elements of dance into the program, along with really stellar, top-level artists. But at the same time, it’s paired with traditional core standard symphonic repertoire, so it’s that theme of the old and the new, or saying new things with old works, and vice versa.”
The festivities culminate on Nov. 12 with a Centennial Gala & Concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma. The legendary cellist will play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto under Zhang’s baton. The concert opens with Wynton Marsalis’ “Herald, Holler and Hallelujah,” a NJS co-commission, and the New Jersey Ballet will perform Ginastera’s Four Dances from “Estancia.”
Zhang notes with great enthusiasm that the gala has already sold out. The only concert during her tenure that came close to selling out was the 2019 inaugural Chinese New Year Celebration, a smashing success.
“The Lunar Concert was almost sold out, filled up to the fourth tier,” she says. “But this time, the Yo-Yo Ma concert is completely sold out — no more tickets! It’s going to be a great celebration.”
For tickets and more information, visit njsymphony.org.
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