As the New Jersey Symphony opens its centennial season, it does so with a music director who is both mindful of the organization's rich history and eager to continue expanding its reach and range of offerings. Earlier this year, conductor Xian Zhang accepted a second extension to her contract, ensuring that her leadership will carry the orchestra through the 2027-28 season.
In a recent interview, Zhang expressed enthusiasm about the ensemble's future, including its continuing commitment to diversity in the music it plays. Pre-pandemic, she pointed out, the orchestra’s repertoire had featured about "15% composers of color and of female composers." More recently, in 2021, she notes that around “33% percent of the programming” could be attributed to women composers and composers of color. "And our audience loved it!" Zhang added.
Like other orchestras and arts organizations, the New Jersey Symphony worked to keep its core audience engaged during pandemic shutdowns. Zhang recalls the effort to create video compilations, in which she and each of the orchestra's musicians filmed separately to a click track to coordinate performances subsequently assembled into a virtual ensemble.
That process, she recounted, eventually became the basis for their virtual 2020-21 season. One of the resulting videos won the organization a regional Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award. "We adjusted and we learned so quickly how to use technology to our advantage to push our content out for our audience," she said.
Still, Zhang is eager to expand the reach of the symphony, and enthusiastic about the orchestra's upcoming partnerships with classical and contemporary dance companies, choirs from around the state and even a regional literary event, the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. The dance element, she specified, is the "extra surprise" this centennial season.
"In a way, I find dance, something that is visually stimulating for the audience... it's wonderful," Zhang said. "It's a great way to celebrate.”
Zhang herself has been celebrated internationally for her technical precision and joyful conducting. Still, the relatively small, largely male-dominated world of orchestral conductors has been plagued by a well-documented undercurrent of misogyny. Statements by some male maestros have included concerns over a mother's capacity to focus on the work and a woman's ability to muster the strength to perform the job.
Despite such overt sexism, Zhang — herself a mother of two — has found success in her chosen profession, with a noteworthy list of “first woman to...” credits to her name. She was the first woman named as music director of an Italian orchestra, the first woman named to a post with any BBC orchestra and, in 2015, the first woman named as music director of the New Jersey Symphony.
When French conductor Nathalie Stutzmann was picked to head the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, she became the only woman to helm one of the country’s top 25 orchestras. It’s a moment that Marin Alsop, former conductor at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, celebrated during an interview with NPR.
“I'm really thrilled that she was just recently appointed," Alsop told Fresh Air host Terry Gross. "But I think it almost highlights the fact that progress is very slow and sporadic. And there doesn't seem to be a real progression to the top in terms of this industry, which is something I hope we can see change in the next decade or so."
Zhang expressed support for her women colleagues, like Stutzmann and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the dynamic young Lithuanian conductor currently leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. "I do feel that in the past five, six years, the situation has improved a great deal for female conductors," she said. "It does feel, to me, that the tide is turning in a favorable way toward women conductors."
Ultimately though, Zhang feels that the issue is a supply problem — or, as she puts it, "a number problem." Once more girls and women are in the talent pool, she said, more of them will be given the opportunity to advance into high profile positions. To get there, Zhang added, it’s critical that young artists be "exposed to teachers who are able to help them at a very early stage."
Eager as she is to look ahead, Zhang is also reflecting back upon the first 100 years of the New Jersey Symphony. She pointed to the pivotal appointment of Henry Lewis (1968-1976) as a shining moment for the orchestra. Lewis was the country's first Black man to hold the position of music director, his tenure starting not long after the Newark Race Riots.
"I think this orchestra is one of the forerunners in what we call D.E.I.: diversity, equality and inclusion," Zhang said. "I really feel proud that this is the philosophy behind this orchestra and this organization.”
Mindful of the institution's history, Zhang is also conscious of her own need to balance new material with more standard orchestral works. It's a move that is programmatically and personally strategic. For conductors in her position, performing and recording standard repertory is essential to establish credibility. Among the major standard works Zhang has programmed for this season are Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (June 9-11, 2023) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (March 3-5, 2023) — the latter, she noted, a piece the New Jersey Symphony hadn't played in more than a decade.
Also on the schedule for the 2022-23 season are prominent soloists, including pianists Yefim Bronfman (this weekend) and Daniil Trifonov (Jan. 6-8, 2023) and violinist Hilary Hahn (Jan. 28-29, 2023). The orchestra's season gala on Nov. 12, already sold out, features the superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The orchestra’s film of pianist Trifonov performing Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of Zhang's "most proud videos." Noting the organization’s proximity to New York City, Zhang says that the opportunity to perform with Trifonov and others in the lineup of impressive soloists to be featured this season, “all came as an advantage to where we are."
Rather than being overshadowed by certain larger, better-known cousins across the Hudson River, Zhang feels the New Jersey Symphony benefits from the association. "We have great artists nearby," she said, "really at the doorstep." She credits the orchestra's geographic location with its ability to attract artists such as soprano Renée Fleming, who collaborated with the organization during the pandemic.
Having started to plan this centennial year in advance of the pandemic, Zhang admits to being excited now. She singles out the orchestra's collaboration with Nimbus Dance as one of the moments she anticipates most. That company is performing Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” during the opening weekend. “It will be a very unusual, very special concert experience," Zhang said.
The New Jersey Symphony performs on Saturday, Oct. 8 at Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, and on Sunday, Oct. 9 at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. View details for the orchestra's entire centenary season at njsymphony.org.