“Music Speaks” is the theme for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming 2018–19 season, announced by conductor and music director Xian Zhang during a special day-long program held for NJSO donors and members of the media on Friday, January 26, 2016 at NJPAC in Newark.
The program consisted of a two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal of the NJSO and was followed by an official on-stage announcement by Zhang where she discussed the organization’s upcoming 2018–19 season.
The afternoon concluded with large group and one-on-one interviews with Zhang conducted by members of the media.
Arriving at NJPAC at 9:45 AM, we take our seats in the venue’s stunning Prudential Hall to watch the NJSO rehearse for a concert featuring Britten’s Simple Symphony, Korngold’s Violin Concerto, and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. Here, we get a rare opportunity to experience a look inside the workings of a world-class professional symphony orchestra.
Conductor Xian Zhang and the NJSO take the stage promptly at 10 AM and the magic begins. With the house lights up and about 100 invited guest in attendance, we are treated to a morning filled with glorious symphonic music.
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The presentation begins with Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony for string orchestra. Fingers deftly pluck on strings as orchestral players rehearse the delicate “Playful Pizzicato” section. Sometimes, however, they strum their resonant-sounding instruments instead!
As they continue to practice, Zhang gives musical directions to the players in terms of words of encouragement and advice.
At times, Zhang even sings what she wants to hear from a specific section or player in the orchestra in order to effectively convey her message.
Bowing her head to listen carefully, she also responds to questions from the orchestra for clarification, addressing them in her warm, professional manner.
The music swells from the stage and flows out into the auditorium as Zhang conducts with fluid movements, coaxing the orchestra to accurately perform her unique vision of the composition.
Acknowledging to the invited guests that “the Simple Symphony is actually really hard,” Zhang further notes, “the next piece is notoriously difficult, too, but guest violinist Chloe Hanslip is so great, she makes it sound very easy.”
At this point, Hanslip makes her way onto the stage with her violin where she and the NJSO begin to perform Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D.
Expertly playing the runs and trills and thrills of the piece, Hanslip’s violin sweetly sings above the orchestra.
Some audience members seem surprised to note that even though this is a rehearsal, several movements of the piece are played without stopping. The music lovers in the auditorium soak in the music from the stage listening in rapt attention — not a word is spoken.
When Zhang finally does stop to perfect a passage, she announces, “We’re really just picking eggshells from the eggs now!”
One reason she stops the music is because, as she explains, “Someone is coming in a little before the beat.” Another reason, she reveals, is, “We’re taking too much time to land there at the pianissimo chord.”
Each time, after the group makes the designated correction, Zhang replies, “Perfect!”
At the conclusion of the piece, Zhang tells the audience, “We have a little surprise for you now.” Here, she, the NJSO, and Hanslip perform a surprise encore piece — the theme from the film, Schindler’s List.
As the audience applauds, Zhang and Hanslip bow and shake hands before the entire group takes a short intermission.
During the break, we chat with a trio of audience members — Monique, Paula, and Peter.
Monique, from Basking Ridge, is an NJSO donor who informs us, “The orchestra has open rehearsals three or four times a year by invitation to donors and their guests.”
Revealing, “We’ve been donors for twenty years,” Monique contends that, “over that period of time, the progress of the NJSO has been tremendous in terms of the quality, richness, color, and expanded repertoire which,” she adds, “occasionally even features New Jersey composers!”
Monique also talks about the sense of family and community she feels from her years of donating to the NJSO when she discloses, “My husband was diagnosed with AMC — a form of leukemia — and when he was in the middle of chemotherapy, musicians from the NJSO even came out and played for him!”
At this point, Monique introduces us to her guests for today’s open rehearsal, Paula and Peter from Basking Ridge.
Comments Paula, “Watching Xian Zhang is like watching a performance in and of itself — with the way she conducts, its almost as if she’s a dancer!”
Paula’s husband, Peter, agrees, acknowledging, “I’ve never been to a rehearsal before — I’ve only seen one on television on Mozart in the Jungle. It is great to see the inner workings of this organization — I’m really impressed with the way Xian Zhang is able to shape the music.”
Following intermission, Zhang and the entire NJSO retake their places on the stage. For this portion of the rehearsal, the team takes the audience on a journey with a dynamic performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony.
Looking elegant and regal — even without the classic garb associated with a world class orchestral performance — the talented musicians of the NJSO demonstrate their skills as they share their gifts with the audience.
Their generosity is appreciated by the sophisticated listeners in the auditorium, as the music lovers in attendance today enjoy the piece’s sweet and slow Largo section — it’s lilting melody played throughout the composition by different instruments in variation.
They also enjoy watching Zhang — sometimes conducting in circles in an effort to achieve the rolling sounds of the orchestra in the Molto Vivace.
Lastly, during the Allegro con fuoco, the full orchestra shines under Zhang’s baton, each movement choreographed by the demands of the score where the instrumentalists combine their individual parts into one glorious whole that captivates the audience!
At the conclusion of the rehearsal, we are led backstage where we are ushered onto the gleaming NJPAC stage and asked to take seat. Here, we have a perfect view of what a professional orchestra member might see when he or she looks up and out into the stunning Prudential Hall auditorium.
NJSO CEO and president Gabriel van Aalst welcomes everyone to the official announcement of the 2018–19 season acknowledging, “There are so many concerts I’m desperate to go to — and not just because I work here!”
Explaining that the theme of the upcoming season is “Music Speaks,” van Aalst introduces the NJSO’s music director and conductor, Xian Zhang.
Zhang elaborates on the theme stating, “Words have great power. We see so many words today on everything — poems, books, novels, speeches, texts. As a result, for our 2018–2019 season, I’ve chosen pieces that are inspired by great stories, myths, and poems, bringing these words to vivid life.”
After acknowledging, “I’m quite addicted to words and poetry,” Zhang goes on to suggest, “Sometimes music can take words further and leave you space to think.”
At this point, van Aalst and Zhang discuss various highlights of the upcoming season.
For example, they reveal that the Opening Night performance — which takes place in October — will feature the US premiere of Kate Whitley’s “Speak Out,” a composition which was inspired by Pakastani activist Malala Yousafzai’s United Nations speech, that will be paired with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
According to the duo, November will feature the film, Star Wars: A New Hope,with live music provided by the members of the NJSO. In January, the group will present Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in concert.
Additionally, in January, the orchestra will perform Earth and Heaven, a concert which will include Mahler’s Symphony №4, and The Eternal, a presentation which will include gifted pianist Daniil Trifonov performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto, along with Strauss’ tone poem, Also speech Zarathustra, famous for its use in the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Zhang is particularly happy to note that, in February, the NJSO will present a Chinese New Year Celebration with a performance of Li Huanzhi’s Spring Festival Overture, along with Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.
Celebrating the fine musicians of the NJSO, in March, Zhang and the orchestra will feature the group’s horn section — Andrea Menousek, Lawrence DiBello, Susan Standley, and Principal French horn player Chris Komer, who is seated here with us on stage today — in the NJSO’s premiere of Schumann’s Konzertstuck for Four Horns.
Van Aalst and Zhang also mention that, in April, the NJSO will present a unique program entitled Sarad and Scheherazade — which not only features Kahn’s Samaagam: A Concerto for Sarod (Indian lute), Concertante Group, and String Orchestra, but Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, as well.
According to the pair, April will also include a screening of the popular Walt Disney film, Mary Poppins, with the NJSO performing a live rendition of the well-known score.
Van Aalst and Zhang conclude their discussion of highlights of the upcoming 2018–19 season by mentioning the blockbuster all-orchestral Season Finale in June which will feature the various sections of the NSJO with performances of selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in addition to Rachmaninoff’s Symphony №2.
Following the season announcement by van Aalst and Zhang, we take a moment to chat with the NJSO’s principal horn player, Chris Komer.
First, we ask Komer about his thoughts regarding this morning’s rehearsal, to which he replies, “The New World Symphony is one of the first pieces I ever fell in love with,” revealing, “It has lots of cool horn licks — they are fear inducing; like, really high — in addition to being a masterpiece!”
We also chat with Komer about the NJSO’s upcoming 2018–19 season, to which he acknowledges, “I’m looking forward to playing the Schumann concert — which will feature the French horns on Konzertstuck for Four Horns,” before adding, “I’m also looking forward to playing several other pieces this season including Mahlers’ 4th — which is is a bear,” he jokes — “and the Strauss tone poem.” Further noting that “in every concert there’s meaty horn stuff,” Komer concludes by stating, “It’s a really big season — Xian is taking us to a whole new level.”
Following our chat with Komer, we’re invited to take part in a group interview with Xian Zhang. In this session, members of the press have an opportunity to ask Zhang a variety of questions about her position as music director and conductor of the NJSO.
For instance, when one reporter asks Zhang, “What’s your greatest joy” she responds by stating, “My greatest joy is when we do something the public appreciates — especially children.”
When another journalist queries, “What’s your greatest challenge in teaching your sons about global equality?” Zhang replies, “I hope my sons will see that their Mom worked!”
Going on to add about her education in conducting, Zhang reveals, “I started at 16. I had two women teachers,” before disclosing, “Much later, I realized that I was the only female” who went on to be a conductor, but at the time, “I was just going toward the music.”
Asked about the 100th birthday celebration in 2018 of the great American conductor and composer, Leonard Bernstein, Zhang states, “Lenny left a great phrase with the New York Philharmonic — ‘Every note counts’,” adding, “I think of what he said when I conduct. I have the ultimate respect for him.”
Lastly, we’re given the opportunity to engage in a one-on-one interview with Xian Zhang. During our chat, we ask her about her childhood musical experiences, her music education, her work with the NJSO, and her personal thoughts on the upcoming NJSO 2018–19 season.
Spotlight Central: We understand that, as a child, you learned to play the piano on an instrument that was hand built by your father. Is that correct?
Xian Zhang: That’s right.
Spotlight Central: Can you tell us more about it?
Xian Zhang: I actually have a picture of that piano on my phone! My father was an instrument maker — he made violins and cellos. I was born in the ’70s at the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution when they burned all of the Western instruments. There were no pianos at that time. Have you ever seen the movie The Red Violin?
Spotlight Central: Not yet…
Xian Zhang: Well, I’m giving you some homework — you must see it tonight! You see — at the time, the instrument factories were all closed. And I started lessons at age three — where my parents were my first teachers — but at the age of six, I went to study at the conservatory.
Spotlight Central: And which composers’ music did you listen to and play as a child?
Xian Zhang: I learned all the basics — Bach, Mozart, Haydn.
Spotlight Central: Earlier, in your chat with the media, you said that you started conducting at the age of 16. What got you interested in conducting at such a young age?
Xian Zhang: I was being trained to become an ear training professor — because I have perfect pitch — but the program closed. As a result, I had to choose another program. I didn’t want to be a composer — I wanted to make music!
At the time, I was an accompanist for a choir and, there, I would watch the conductor. And, as I mentioned earlier, I had two female conducting teachers; one of them — Professor Wu — is almost 90, and still conducts! So it really is quite by accident that I became a conductor.
Spotlight Central: You went on to work with the New York Philharmonic and with various orchestras around the world, but how do you enjoy working here in New Jersey?
Xian Zhang: I knew this orchestra from working in New York. When I left to work in Italy, I knew I would come back to America. I went through different stages and this felt like the right path. It really feels like a return home to me in a way, because when I worked in New York, we would drive through New Jersey on our way to Pennsylvania on the weekends.
Spotlight Central: Which pieces and guest artists are you most looking forward to playing or working with in the coming season?
Xian Zhang: I’m really looking forward to working with Daniil Trifonov — I’ve worked with him before — and he’s fantastic! He’ll be performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto and we get him first! He plays here before he plays at Carnegie Hall — they made their season announcement yesterday — so I just found out that New Jersey gets him first!
Spotlight Central: That’s very exciting! Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Xian Zhang: Yes! Please come out and see the NJSO — you won’t regret it!
For more on the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming 2018–2019 season, please go to: njsymphony.org.Photos by Love Imagery
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