Your NJSO Through the Years

A world-class orchestra with local roots, creative programming in concerts throughout the state and service to the community through education—these values have been the hallmark of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra since its beginnings in 1922.

In 1922, the ensemble that would later be known as the NJSO gave its first concert at the Montclair Art Museum, a fittingly local venue for the beginning of an organization that has defined itself through its community connections. Philip James led this group of only 19 string players in a program that included music by Purcell, Saint-Saëns and Veracini, as well as the world premiere of The Dark Road by American composer Cecil Forsyth.

An impressive roster of guest soloists graced the Orchestra’s stages in the late 1920s and 30s, including Percy Grainger, Pablo Casals, José Iturbi, Joseph Szigeti, Artur Schnabel and Efrem Zimbalist.

Samuel Antek became the NJSO’s music director in 1946 and focused on expanding the NJSO’s role in its communities, beginning radio broadcasts on WNJR, creating the “Music for Fun” series of children’s concerts, introducing the first outdoor pops concert on the estate of Augustus C. Studer of Montclair and establishing the NJSO’s first youth orchestras. Antek stated the Orchestra’s mission was “to share with more communities the inspiration of the concerts given by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.”

Under Music Director Henry Lewis (1968–76)—the first African-American music director of a major symphony orchestra—the NJSO entered a new era of high-profile musical activity. The Orchestra made its Carnegie Hall debut with famous soprano (and Lewis’ wife) Marilyn Horne, who became a regular guest with the Orchestra during the Lewis years, as soloist; performed three outdoor concerts led by Lewis in 1968 in a vacant lot on Prince St.—the site of the 1967 Newark Riots—and one in Untermann Field that Lewis dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King; and gave a concert at Garden State Arts Center with Luciano Pavarotti. The Orchestra would perform with Pavarotti again in 1984, in the first classical music program ever performed at Madison Square Garden.

The Orchestra gained even wider recognition under the direction of Hugh Wolff from 1985 until 1992. During this time, the Orchestra broadcast live concerts on PBS, performed The Rite of Spring at Carnegie Hall to great acclaim and presented a retrospective of the works of Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in a concert praised by the composer himself. Mstislav Rostropovich led the Orchestra in a Kennedy Center Concert, and the Orchestra made its first international tour to Ireland for the Adare Festival and a performance at Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

The growth of the Orchestra’s reputation continued under Zdenek Macal, who increased the number of commissions and premieres the Orchestra performed, including works by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, George Walker and Richard Danielpour. It was also under Macal that the NJSO stepped out as a major recording ensemble, releasing recordings of works by Dvoƙák, Mussorgsky and Glière on the Delos label.

Neeme Järvi succeeded Macal in 2003. The esteemed Estonian conductor championed Scandinavian music during his tenure with the NJSO, introducing New Jersey audiences to new works and raising the Orchestra’s artistic profile.

Since becoming the NJSO’s Music Director in October 2010, Jacques Lacombe has garnered praise from critics and audiences for his creative programming and his talents at the podium. Under his leadership, the NJSO has augmented select concerts with multimedia elements and daring new programs. Highlights of the NJSO’s “Man & Nature” Winter Festivals have included performances of Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire—with a realization of the composer’s “color organ”—and the commissioning of the Francesca Harper Project to create original choreography for Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. Lacombe has continued the Orchestra’s tradition of collaborating with other New Jersey arts institutions, including a multiyear partnership with The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey that has become the centerpiece of the NJSO’s “Sounds of Shakespeare” Winter Festivals.

Commissions from major composers have continued under Lacombe, including a new work by Steven Mackey and premieres of three works by Richard Danielpour, the latest of which will be the world premiere of Danielpour’s The Wounded Healer Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra in January 2016. Through the New Jersey Roots Project—which Lacombe conceived as a new affirmation of the organization’s commitment to artistic excellence in its own communities— the Orchestra explored overlooked repertoire and commissioned new works from New Jersey composers and composers whose artistic identity was influenced by the Garden State. The NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute, an outgrowth of the New Jersey Roots Project, offers emerging composers an intensive, multifaceted laboratory experience including masterclasses, rehearsals and feedback sessions with the NJSO and career-enriching sessions with music-industry leaders, culminating in a live NJSO performance of the composers’ works. The Institute is presented in collaboration with the Princeton University Department of Music and generously funded in part by the Edward T. Cone Foundation, Princeton University and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In November 2015, the NJSO announced that internationally renowned Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang will become the Orchestra’s 14th music director, succeeding Lacombe effective September 1, 2016. Press have praised Zhang’s artistry and connection with the NJSO in the conductor’s guest appearances with the Orchestra. The Star-Ledger writes: “Zhang once again proved a thrilling leader who has already established a strong rapport with the orchestra. The program showed her interacting with the orchestra in a variety of contexts … In each one, her innate musicality and ability to communicate intention with clarity invested every gesture. Nothing seemed extraneous or glossed over, even as her whole body seemed to contract and release with explosive energy.”

Since its inception in 1922, the NJSO has attracted some of the greatest international talent in the classical music world as guest soloists, including Pablo Casals, Joseph Szigeti and Percy Grainger among its earliest guests. The NJSO continues to present top-notch performers, including Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Yefim Bronfman, André Watts and Marc-André Hamelin. The Orchestra has also been active in seeking out new and undiscovered talent. Pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, both enjoying acclaimed international careers now, each performed with the NJSO when they were still students at the Curtis Institute.

The NJSO today presents concerts featuring top-tier musical guests at six venues throughout the state—in addition to summer concerts at additional outdoor venues—and provides educational and community engagement opportunities through the Greater Newark Youth Orchestras and numerous other programs.

Last updated November 2015.

Music Directors and Premieres