NEWARK, New Jersey – Since becoming Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in 2016, dynamic conductor Xian Zhang has worked tirelessly to reflect diversity and inclusion through the programming of the institution, awareness initiatives and guest artists. This was crucial in a city where the majority of the inhabitants were black and Latino; he also spoke about Zhang’s own experience as one of the few Asian female conductors to conduct major ensembles. Those priorities were in evidence on Friday when, 557 days after its last full orchestral concert (due to the pandemic), the New Jersey Symphony opened its new season at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on a balmy night in Newark.
The program opened with the premiere of “Emerge” by Michael Abels. Best known for his sheet music for contemporary horror films “Get Out” and “Us,” Abels describes this eight-minute piece as suggesting that a group of highly skilled musicians get back together after a long hiatus, a script that speaks volumes. at the time.
It begins with the evocation of an orchestral chord. We hear the oboe play a single pitch of a, which the other instruments pick up. Soon the various musicians break up into short melodic three-note pieces, quivering strings, choppy rhythms and sustained tones that keep swelling and diminishing. During one episode, players seem to almost be in free mode, somewhat reminiscent of how many orchestras heat up on stage as the audience arrives, creating a mass of borderline boring sounds. But the music here becomes like an agitated sound collage pierced with flint dissonance. Soon, various players take off in bluesy solos, or engage in ephemeral counterpoints. Finally, the musicians join forces in passages of mellow lyricism, nervous bursts, manic scales, all leading to a brassy and festive coda.
Next, composer and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain “Concerto pour violon voodou”, a 25-minute work from 2002 that reflects his Haitian heritage but also fuses elements of hip-hop, jazz and classic contemporary styles. The solo part animates this work, and Roumain played masterfully on an amplified violin, including the electronics with which he could strangely process certain sounds. In the first section, “Filter”, the violin jumps into orchestral atmospheres with repeated riffs in perpetual motion. The instruments respond with zesty backing music for the woodwinds and full, jazzy orchestral harmonies.
There have been long episodes where Roumain improvised winding strands of frenzied but lyrical lines to orchestral music that maintains a respectful distance. Although this is a shameless episodic work, with passages evoking call-and-response styles of jazz and a brave cadence that hones the “Star-Spangled Banner”, the concerto still has a compositional sweep. which continues in “Prayer”, the sweet and elegiac second section, with the violin playing to chorale-like piano music and a funky and lamentable finale “Tribe”.
Although it is hard to imagine that as a music student in a traditional Beijing conservatory, Zhang could have imagined playing a score full of jazz, blues and improvisation, she led a confident narrative and irrepressible. Romanian, who has collaborated in exciting ways with Bill T. Jones, Savion Glover and other creators outside of classical music, is starting an appointment this season as the orchestra’s resident artistic catalyst, and the title speaks volumes about his ambition in this role. After the concerto, he spoke to the audience about the responsibility we all have to love each other and be creative during what has been “a time of death and despair”.
Zhang then conducted an elegant, rich and fiery recital of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The slow movement was particularly fine, taken at a true Allegretto rhythm, steady but never forceful, restrained but running with an inner intensity. It was a long awaited and rewarding return for an essential orchestra.