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New Jersey Symphony Celebrates 100 Years with Steven Mackey's world premiere, RIOT

originally published: 03/23/2023

New Jersey Symphony Celebrates 100 Years with Steven Mackey

(NEWARK, NJ) -- This April 21-23, Steven Mackey's RIOT receives its world premiere with the New Jersey Symphony led by Music Director Xian Zhang featuring the Princeton University Glee Club Choir, directed by Gabriel Crouch, joined by mezzo-soprano Alicia Olatuja and Mackey himself on electric guitar. The large-scale work, written in collaboration with former U. S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, was composed in honor of New Jersey Symphony's centennial season The performance will also feature Mozart's Symphony No. 25 and his Overture to Don Giovanni as well as Bruckner's Te Deum.

A longtime resident of New Jersey and a professor of composition at Princeton University for nearly four decades, Steven Mackey is a frequent collaborator with the New Jersey Symphony, and serves as Director of the symphony’s Edward T. Cone Composition Institute.

Mackey states: “My daydreams about what I might do for such an auspicious occasion were grand: my friends in the New Jersey Symphony joined on a packed stage by a vocal soloist, a chorus and myself on guitar, all singing and playing with abandon." He asked poet Tracy K. Smith (who was a colleague at Princeton) to provide text, as “she knows how to make words sing.”

As Mackey and Smith began to work on the piece in summer 2020, what began as a celebratory work shifted following the death of George Floyd to a piece that “foregrounds race and resilience.” The first line written by Smith is a dark, personal statement that Mackey describes as setting up “the interplay between personal and communal, the soloist and the chorus”: “Sometimes I feel / the Black in my heart / like a map / made of tar. You need / only part your lips / to mar what isn't yours.” This is followed by a series of six texts that “trace a trajectory that culminates in positive affirmation and a celebration of hope, perseverance, commitment, and community. The music aspires to honor that trajectory.”

Composed in 1773 when Mozart was only 17 years old, Symphony No. 25 is considered by critics to be his first fully mature work. While Symphony No. 25 is known for its dramatic and intense nature, his overture to Don Giovanni is more complex and musically intricate. The overture displays Mozart's mastery of musical form, with contrasting sections and a subtle interplay between the different instrumental sections. In contrast, Symphony No. 25 has a more straightforward structure and relies on its emotional intensity to captivate the listener. Both works, however, showcase Mozart's genius and his ability to create memorable musical themes that have stood the test of time.

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Anton Bruckner called his joyful work, Te Deum, “the pride of my life.” Composed in 1881, Te Deum is regarded as one of his most significant choral works, showcasing his skill in orchestration and use of rich harmony. It is a grand and majestic composition that reflects the composer's deep religious faith and his admiration for the music of Richard Wagner. New Jersey Symphony is joined by soprano Meigui Zhang, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Sean Panikkar, bass-baritone Nathan Berg and Princeton University Glee Club for these performances of Te Deum.

Performances take place at the Richardson Auditorium in Princeton on April 21 at 8:00pm, New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on April 22 at 8 pm and at State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick on April 23 at 3:00pm. Tickets are available for purchase online or by calling 1.800.ALLEGRO (255.3476).

Bright in coloring, ecstatic in inventiveness, lively and profound, Steven Mackey’s music spins the tendrils of his improvisatory riffs into large-scale works of grooving, dramatic coherence.

As a teenager growing up in Northern California obsessed with blues-rock guitar, Mackey was in search of the “right wrong notes,” those heart-wrenching moments that imbue the music with new, unexpected momentum. Today, his pieces play with that tension of being inside or outside of the harmony and flow forward shimmering with prismatic detail.

New Jersey Symphony Celebrates 100 Years with Steven Mackey

Signature early works merged his academic training with the free-spirited physicality of his mother-tongue rock guitar music: Troubadour Songs (1991) and Physical Property (1992) for string quartet and electric guitar; and Banana/Dump Truck (1995), an electrified-cello concerto. Later works explored his deepening fascination in transformation and movement of sound through time: Dreamhouse (2003), a rich work for voices and ensemble was nominated for four Grammy awards; A Beautiful Passing (2008) for violin and orchestra on the passing of his mother; and Slide (2011), a Grammy award–winning music theater piece. In 2021, the LA Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, and trumpet soloist Thomas Hooten gave the world premiere of Shivaree, a fantasy for trumpet and orchestra. Mackey further expanded his theatrical catalog with his short chamber opera Moon Tea about the 1969 meeting between the Apollo 11 astronauts and the Royal Family, premiered by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2021, as well as with his 2022 music theater work Memoir, based on the pages of his late mother’s memoirs.

The 2022—23 season sees three world premieres: Concerto for Curved Space with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons; Red Wood, a new environmentally concerned work for The Soraya’s Treelogy Project; and RIOT with mezzo-soprano Alicia Olatuja, Mackey on electric guitar, New Jersey Symphony, Princeton University Glee Club and conductor Xian Zhang.

Today, Steven Mackey writes for chamber ensemble, orchestra, dance and opera—commissioned by the greatest orchestras around the world. He has served as professor of music at Princeton University for the past 35 years, and in fall 2022, he joined the composition faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music. He has won several awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. He continues to explore an ever-widening world of timbres befitting a complex, 21st-century culture, while always striving to make music that unites the head and heart, that is visceral, that gets us moving.

New Jersey Symphony Celebrates 100 Years with Steven Mackey

Photo by Fred Stucker

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The Emmy and Grammy Award-winning New Jersey Symphony, celebrating its Centennial Season in 2022–23, is redefining what it means to be a nationally leading, relevant orchestra in the 21st century. They are renewing our deeply rooted commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion by championing new, and often local, artists; engaging audiences for whom the inspiring depth and breadth of classical music will be new; and incorporating the broadest possible representation in all aspects of our organization—all to better reflect and serve our vibrant communities. Since 2021, Music Director Xian Zhang has worked together with composer, violinist, educator and social-justice advocate Daniel Bernard Roumain, the orchestra’s resident artistic catalyst, to offer programming that connects with diverse communities in Newark and throughout New Jersey.

Internationally renowned Chinese American conductor Xian Zhang began her tenure as the New Jersey Symphony’s current Music Director in 2016. Since her arrival at the New Jersey Symphony, Zhang has revitalized programming with an industry-leading commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in mainstage concerts. The centennial season opened in October with concerts featuring Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with soloist Yefim Bronfman; Jessie Montgomery’s Banner; Nimbus Dance performing original choreography to Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite; Strauss’ Burleske for Piano and Orchestra with soloist Michelle Cann; Brahms’ Fourth Symphony; and Dorothy Chang’s Northern Star. The centennial season will conclude in June 2023 with Zhang leading the orchestra and violinist Joshua Bell in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and a commissioned world premiere by Daniel Bernard Roumain. 



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