6 min read

Virtual Jet-Setters

Conductor Xian Zhang makes waves at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and in engagements nationwide, and composer Tyshawn Sorey is (virtually) everywhere in November and December.
Virtual Jet-Setters


Be kind to yourselves. Be kind to one another. Be patient.

That’s really all I’ve got, so let’s dig in.

The jet-setting Xian Zhang

Xian Zhang conducting the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. (Photograph: Dan Graziano/NJSO)

Following impressive outings with the Seattle Symphony and Houston Symphony, conductor Xian Zhang is headed to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for important concerts featuring premieres by Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Tyshawn Sorey this Thursday and Friday, ahead of a new New Jersey Symphony Orchestra virtual season opening on Nov. 19 with music by Daniel Bernard Roumain and Michael Abels. (There’s about Tyshawn Sorey’s burgeoning season, below.)

My newest article for The New York Times is live now, with sustained gratitude to my friend and colleague, classical-music editor Zachary Woolfe.

Xian Zhang conducting the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, viewed from the third tier at NJPC. (Photograph: Steve Smith)

I’m grateful to Victoria McCabe at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, who extended the invitation to watch the orchestra rehearse and record its first online concert—and was gracious enough to let me change my mind after I’d initially balked at what felt like too long a trip on public transit during a health crisis.

Solution: Zipcar. One of my photos from NJPAC is above. A few more, though they’re nothing special, are on the O.G. Night After Night blog, which now serves as an archive for my published writing and playlists.

Thanks to two executives, John Mangum at the Houston Symphony and Erik Rönmark at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, for taking the time to talk to me in preparation for this article. Their insights weren’t quoted in the end, but both absolutely contributed to my reporting. At the Seattle Symphony, Dinah Lu provided resources and answered questions patiently and in detail.

Daniel Bernard Roumain offered beautiful comments about working with Xian Zhang, whose work he described to me as “revelatory.” For those who might not know, the provocative title of Roumain’s somber, contemplative new piece, i am a white person who _____ Black people, touched off a grotesque confrontation with a former Detroit Symphony musician on Facebook; Drew McManus reported the story on Adaptistration. One positive upshot: The Detroit Symphony now intends to play Roumain’s piece in a future program.

Xian Zhang in conversation on Zoom, October 26, 2020. (Screenshot)

Finally, obviously, I’m grateful to Xian Zhang, whose work I’d admired since her time as an assistant and then associate conductor at the New York Philharmonic during the Lorin Maazel years. It’s satisfying to see her career truly taking flight in the United States since she returned from Italy to take up her present post.

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has always been an ambitious ensemble that took its leads from the communities it serves statewide. I’d admired the ensemble’s work under Zdenek Macal, Neeme Järvi, and Jacques Newcombe. And I didn’t know, until Zhang told me, that the NJSO had been the first major American orchestra to engage a Black conductor as its music director: Henry Lewis – incidentally, the husband of venerated mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne – served from 1968 to 1976.

In Zhang, the NJSO has a skillful, versatile conductor who’s also an eager, effective advocate for social and cultural change and transformation. It’s a potent partnership, and I’m grateful that I got to share this bit of the story.

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra presents the first orchestral concert of its 2020-21 Virtual Season on Nov. 19 at 7:30pm, free of charge. You’ll find more details about the program, and about the entire season, on the orchestra’s website.

Video of the week

Vanderbilt University musicologist Douglas Shadle – in whose company I was supposed to attend the world premiere of Tyshawn Sorey’s For Marcos Balter in person, in Newark, before the world shut down – had been engaged by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to talk about the composer Florence Price, about whom he has written widely, and whose Symphony No. 3 the DSO planned to perform on the 80th anniversary of its premiere, at the original venue, the Detroit Institute of Arts. That event was postponed, so instead Dr. Shadle was invited to chat with the two composers highlighted on DSO programs this week, Sorey and Nokuthula Ngwenyama. I plan to watch this before viewing the concerts this week, and you can, too.

Where’s Sorey now?

Tyshawn Sorey (Photograph courtesy of the artist)

Speaking of Tyshawn Sorey, he, too, is working at a robust pace in this brave new web-based world. Last week saw him lead the latest of his conducted improvisations, titled Autoschediasms, in a remarkable long-distance collaboration with the new-music group Alarm Will Sound—part of that group’s ongoing series Video Chat Variations. You can watch the archived performance on YouTube, and read a probing article by Seth Colter Walls about how it came to be in The New York Times.

Sorey has an extraordinary amount of activity coming up; here’s a quick run-down. (All times are listed in EST.)

Friday, Nov. 6 at 7:30pm – The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Xian Zhang, presents the world premiere of For Marcos Balter, a composition for violin and orchestra—though not a concerto in any traditional sense, Sorey told me, and the score bears him out. The featured violinist is the brilliant Jennifer Koh, and the concert also includes Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint. ($12; dso.org)

Saturday, Nov. 14 at 10pm – In his capacity as Jean Macduff Vaux Composer-in-Residence at Mills College in Oakland, CA, Sorey will present a concert of solo pieces. (Free with registration; performingarts.mills.edu)

Thursday, Nov. 19 at 10:30pmFor Roscoe Mitchell, a new composition for cello and orchestra, was meant to be premiered by the Seattle Symphony during its idiosyncratic Beethoven Festival in June. Instead, the piece will debut on the orchestra’s digital platform, Seattle Symphony Live. The featured cellist is the remarkable Seth Parker Woods; David Robertson conducts, and the program includes Brett Dean’s Testament and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. (By subscription; live.seattlesymphony.org)

Friday, Nov. 20 at 8pmCycles of My Being, the critically acclaimed song cycle Sorey created for tenor Lawrence Brownlee incorporating the singer’s own words and those of writer Terrance Hayes, comes to the new Opera Philadelphia Channel, available online and via platforms like Roku and FireTV. Sorey, who was named the company’s composer-in-residence in November 2019, also is creating an entirely new work for the company, for online presentation in 2021. ($20 for seven-day rental; operaphila.org)

Thursday, Dec. 3 at 8pm – As part of what’s being called a digital residency at the Library of Congress, the intrepid JACK Quartet performs Sorey’s Everything Changes, Nothing Changes, and Austin Wulliman will play For Conrad Tao, for unaccompanied violin. Tao himself will be on hand to accompany Wulliman in Elliott Carter’s Duo, a Library of Congress commission; the rest of the program comprises Carter’s String Quartet No. 3, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s visionary String Quartet (1931), and Angelorum Psalat, a ballade by the 14th century French composer Rodericus, arranged by JACK violinist Christopher Otto. (Free on Facebook and YouTube; loc.gov)

Friday, Dec. 11 at 8pmDa Camera, Houston’s long-running, trailblazing chamber-music presenter, hosts an online presentation of Perle Noire, the arresting music-theater piece Sorey created with writer Claudia Rankine and director Peter Sellars for soprano Julia Bullock and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Bullock made her Houston debut with the piece in 2016, and talks here about how the work came to be. (Free with registration; dacamera.com)