NJSO History

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 nearly 100 years ago.

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.

Over the next two decades, the Orchestra’s core repertoire was expanded and the ensemble tightened under the leadership of Rene Pollain (1929–40) and Frieder Weissman (1940–47). Composers most frequently presented were Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. An impressive roster of guest soloists graced the Orchestra’s stages, including Percy Grainger, Pablo Casals, José Iturbi, Mieczslaw Horszowski, Joseph Szigeti, Artur Schnabel and Efrem Zimbalist.

Samuel Antek, a Toscanini prodigy and concertmaster under Rene Pollain, became the NJSO’s music director in 1947. His stated need for an orchestra to have “a sense of belonging, of being part of the inner core of a community’s life,” focused the expansion of the NJSO’s role in its communities via music education programs and statewide service. Antek created the “Music for Fun” series of children’s concerts, introduced the first outdoor pops concert on the estate of Augustus C. Studer in Montclair, established the NJSO’s first youth orchestra in 1955 and began radio broadcasts on WNJR.

Following Antek’s sudden death in 1958 and the brief tenure of Mathys Abas, the NJSO was led by Kenneth Schermerhorn (1962–67). A student of Serge Koussevitsky and Leonard Bernstein, Schermerhorn expanded the Orchestra’s performance schedule both in terms of number of concerts and locales, and he broadened its repertoire to include 20th-century music.

With the appointment of Henry Lewis as music director in 1968—making Lewis the first African-American music director of a major symphony orchestra—the NJSO entered a new era of high-profile musical activity. Notable highlights of the Lewis years included the NJSO’s Carnegie Hall debut with famous soprano (and Lewis’ wife) Marilyn Horne, who became a regular guest soloist with the Orchestra during Lewis’ tenure; a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, during the venue’s inaugural season in 1971; three outdoor concerts dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, in a vacant lot on Prince Street—the site of the 1967 Newark Riots—in 1968; and a concert at the Garden State Arts Center (now PNC Bank Arts Center) with Luciano Pavarotti making his American orchestral debut. (The Orchestra would perform with Pavarotti again in 1984, in the first classical music program ever performed at Madison Square Garden.)

Following Lewis’ departure in 1976 and a year of transition, Thomas Michalak was selected to lead the NJSO in 1977. His programming had a definite Slavic flavor and culminated in an electrifying all-Szymanowski program at Carnegie Hall that garnered considerable praise. Another highlight of these years was the NJSO’s first nationwide PBS telecast, “Gershwin and Song,” with Newark native and jazz great Sarah Vaughn. Vaughan won an Emmy Award for this performance, and the NJSO received national acclaim.

The Orchestra gained even wider recognition under the direction of Hugh Wolff (1985–92). 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 Leonard 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 Dvořák, 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 (both newly written and previously unknown) and raising the Orchestra’s artistic profile.

Jacques Lacombe became the NJSO’s music director in 2010 and, during his tenure, garnered praise from critics and audiences for his creative programming and his talents at the podium. A major recognition of this innovative programming was the NJSO’s selection in the 2012 Spring For Music Festival at Carnegie Hall with a program of works of Varese, Weill and Busoni. Under Lacombe’s leadership, the NJSO augmented select concerts with multimedia elements and expanded its tradition of collaborating with other New Jersey and New York arts institutions, including The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Francesca Harper Project, Montclair State University and Manhattan School of Music.

Lacombe implemented a multi-year New Jersey Roots Project, through which the Orchestra explored overlooked repertoire and commissioned new works from New Jersey composers and composers whose artistic identity was influenced by the Garden State. An outgrowth of this project was the establishment of the NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute, which 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 each summer.

Internationally renowned Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang began her tenure as NJSO Music Director in 2016. Since assuming the helm of the NJSO, Zhang has revitalized NJSO programming with an industry-leading commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in mainstage concerts. A full realization of Zhang’s artistic vision, the 2018–19 season features a diverse array of musical voices, from female composers (Kate Whitley’s Speak Out in its US premiere, Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks with soprano Dawn Upshaw and Florence Price’s Piano Concerto with acclaimed jazz pianist Aaron Diehl) to composers performing their own concertos (Steven Mackey’s Four Iconoclastic Episodes for violin and electric guitar, Amjad Ali Khan’s Samaagam for Sarod, Concertante Group and String Orchestra) to classical masters (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra).

The NJSO’s inaugural Chinese New Year Celebration concert in 2019 reflects Zhang’s extensive outreach to New Jersey’s Chinese community; the East Coast premiere of Andrew Norman’s Cello Concerto (an NJSO co-commission) reflects her renewed commitment to the NJSO’s commissioning program. She brings world-class artists, including lauded pianists Daniil Trifonov and Emanuel Ax, to NJSO stages.

In the 2017–18 season, her inaugural Winter Festival—the Orchestra’s signature artistic event—was inspired by her own experiences in the United States. “America, Inspiring” celebrated foreign artists and composers whose experiences connect them to the nation’s legacy as a source of inspiration and beacon of ideals for people from all over the world.

In concert, Zhang has forged deep connections with New Jersey audiences through thoughtful and engaging comments from the podium and shaped the sound of the Orchestra through committed and inspiring leadership of standard repertoire works. Her advocacy for education and community engagement has included meaningful interaction with the student musicians of the NJSO Academy music-instruction programs; she has led NJSO Academy Orchestra performances on stage at NJPAC at NJSO concerts and conducted NJSO CHAMPS and #OrchestraYou. Off stage, she has demonstrated fundraising leadership in collaboration with the NJSO board and management.

A contract extension for Zhang announced in June 2018 secures the acclaimed conductor’s leadership of the NJSO through the 2023–24 season.

NJSO Music Directors

  • 1922–29 • Philip James
  • 1929–40 • Rene Pollain
  • 1940–47 • Frieder Weissman
  • 1947–58 • Samuel Antek
  • 1958–61 • Mathys Abas
  • 1962–67 • Kenneth Schermerhorn
  • 1967–76 • Henry Lewis
  • 1976–77 • Max Rudolph (Music Advisor)
  • 1977–83 • Thomas Michalak
  • 1983–85 • George Manahan (Interim)
  • 1985–92 • Hugh Wolff
  • 1992–2003 • Zdenek Macal
  • 2003–09 • Neeme Järvi (2003–05 Principal Conductor and Music Director Designate)
  • 2010–2016 • Jacques Lacombe (2009–10 Music Director Designate)
  • 2016–present • Xian Zhang

World Premieres

  • 1922–23 • Cecil Forsyth: The Dark Road (Schradieck Aue, viola)
  • 1924–25 • James McD. Craven: Theme and Variations for String Orchestra and Flute (Roscoe Possel, flute)
  • 1924–25 • John Tasker Howard: Intaglio
  • 1926–27 • A. Walter Kramer: Silhouette
  • 1926–27 • Philip James: Overture on French Noels
  • 1928–29 • John Tasker Howard: Fantasy on a Choral Theme for Piano and Orchestra (John Tasker Howard, piano)
  • 1943–44 • John Tasker Howard: Ballade for String Orchestra
  • 1949–50 • Herbert Haufrecht: When Dad was a Fireman
  • 1963–64 • Ulysses Kay: Inscriptions from Whitman (NJSO co-commission with the New Jersey Tercentenary Committee)
  • 1965–66 • Roger Sessions: Symphony No. 6 (NJSO commission)
  • 1967–68 • Ben Weber: The Enchanted Midnight
  • 1967–68 • Ben Starer: Six Variations with Twelve Notes
  • 1975–76 • Fedor Kabalin: Opus 1776
  • 1983–84 • Peter Westergaard: The Tempest (Act I, Scene 2)
  • 1986–87 • Eleanor Cory: Tapestry
  • 1987–88 • Stephen Jaffe: Four Images for Orchestra (NJSO commission)
  • 1988–89 • Ezra Laderman: Concerto for Double Orchestra (NJSO commission)
  • 1989–90 • John Harbison: Viola Concerto (Jaime Laredo, viola) (NJSO commission)
  • 1990–91 • Paul Dukas: L’ondine et la Pecheur (Dawn Upshaw, soprano)
  • 1990–91 • Christopher Rouse: Iscariot (NJSO commission)
  • 1991–92 • Aaron Jay Kernis: Symphony No. 2
  • 1991–92 • John David Ernest: Sun Songs and Nocturnes for Male Ensemble and Orchestra (Chanticleer)
  • 1991–92 • Joseph Turrin: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (Carol Wincenc, flute)
  • 1992–93 • Michael Daugherty: Silent Night/Bizarro World
  • 1992–93 • Augusta Read Thomas: Sinfonia Concertante for Soprano Saxophone (Jane Ira Bloom, saxophone)
  • 1992–93 • George Rochberg: Symphony No. 6
  • 1993–94 • Richard Danielpour: Piano Concerto No. 2 (Christopher O’Riley, piano)
  • 1993–94 • William Thomas McKinley: Lightning: An Overture
  • 1993–94 • Jose Serebrier: Violin Concerto, “Winter” (Michael Guttman, violin)
  • 1993–94 • Mel Powell: Settings for Small Orchestra (NJSO commission)
  • 1994–95 • Anthony Newman: Organ Concerto (Anthony Newman, organ)
  • 1995–96 • Dudley Moore: Fantasy on a Gypsy Breeze (Lynn Redgrave, narrator)
  • 1996–97 • Lowell Lieberman: Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra (Jan Gippo, piccolo)
  • 1996–97 • Augusta Read Thomas: Eclipse Musings (Bonita Boyd, flute, and Nicholas Goluses, guitar)
  • 1996–97 • William Thomas McKinley: Goldberg Variations II (Bernard Goldberg, flute)
  • 1996–97 • Glen Cortese: Variations for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (John Wilton, flute)
  • 1996–97 • David Sampson: Turns for Cello and Orchestra (Paul Tobias, cello)
  • 1997–98 • Richard Danielpour: Celestial Night (NJSO commission)
  • 1997–98 • George Walker: Pageant & Proclamation (NJSO commission)
  • 2000–01 • Bun-Ching Lam: The Song of P’ipa (Wu Man, p’ipa) (NJSO commission)
  • 2000–01 • Thomas Oboe Lee: Flauta Carioca (Bart Feller, flute) (NJSO commission)
  • 2001–02 • Hannibal: God, Mississippi and A Man Called Evers (NJSO commission)
  • 2001–02 • Libby Larsen: Dreames and Imaginations (NJSO commission)
  • 2002–03 • Robert Aldridge: Leda and the Swan (NJSO commission)
  • 2002–03 • Richard Danielpour: Apparitions (NJSO commission)
  • 2002–03 • Derek Bermel: Slides (NJSO commission)
  • 2003–04 • Frances White: Centre Bridge (dark river) for String Orchestra and Electronic Sound
  • 2004–05 • Stewart Goodyear: Caribbiana (NJSO commission)
  • 2004–05 • Lalo Schifrin: Triple Concerto for Clarinet, Viola, Piano and Orchestra
  • 2005–06 • Charles Coleman: Red Oak Dawn (NJSO commission)
  • 2006–07 • Darryl Kubian: “Maestro’s Waltz” (NJSO commission)
  • 2007–08 • Darryl Kubian: 3-2-1 (Eric Wyrick, traditional and electric violin) (NJSO commission)
  • 2010–11 • Bruce Adolphe: Carnival of the Creatures
  • 2010–11 • Robert Aldridge: Suite from Elmer Gantry (NJSO commission)
  • 2011–12 • George Walker: Sinfonia No. 4 (Strands)
  • 2011–12 • Richard Danielpour: Kaddish for Violin and Orchestra (co-commission)
  • 2013–14 • Geri Allen: Stone & Streams (NJSO commission)
  • 2013–14 • Lowell Liebermann: Barcarolles for a Sinking City (NJSO commission)
  • 2014–15 • Darryl Kubian: O for a Muse of Fire (Mary Fahl, vocalist) (NJSO commission)
  • 2014–15 • Edward T. Cone: Symphony
  • 2014–15 • Lembit Beecher: Kalevipoeg in California (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2014–15 • David Biedenbender: Strange, Beautiful Noises (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2014–15 • Daniel J. Choi: Scaena Ager (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2014–15 • Chris Rogerson: Night and the City (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2015–16 • Richard Danielpour: The Wounded Healer (Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra) (Lisa Pegher, percussion)
  • 2015–16 • Luke Carlson: The Burnished Tide (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2015–16 • Brendan Faegre: Dirt to Gold (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2015–16 • Shuying Li: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2015–16 • Reinaldo Moya: Siempre Lunes, Siempre Marzo (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2016–17 • James Anderson: Places with Pillars (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2016–17 • Matthew Browne: Farthest South (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2016–17 • Will Stackpole: ... Ask Questions Later (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2016–17 • Jung Yoon Wie: Water Prism for Orchestra (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2017–18 • Saad Haddad: Takht (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2017–18 • Noah Kaplan: Forest Through Forest (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2017–18 • Sam Lipman: Song of the Bhagavan (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2017–18 • Alyssa Weinberg: Tereza Slumbers (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2017–18 • Richard Danielpour: Carnival of the Ancients for Piano and Orchestra
  • 2018–19 • Jonathan Cziner: Resonant Bells (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2018–19 • Natalie Dietterich: Aeolian Dust (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2018–19 • Aaron Hendrix: Night Train (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)
  • 2018–19 • Brian Shank: Into the Rose Garden (NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute)

United States Premieres

1923–24 • Gustav Holst: St. Paul’s Suite

1924–25 • Sergei Prokofiev: Overture on Yiddish Themes, Op. 34

1925–26 • Cyrill Jenkins: Welsh Fantasia

1986–87 • Gerald Levinson: Two Poems

1992–93 • Gary Schocker: Green Places (James Galway, flute)

1992–93 • George Walker: Variations for Orchestra

2003–04 • Boris Parsadanian: Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (Maarika Järvi, flute)

2003–04 • Eino Tamberg: Musica Triste for Flute, Vibraphone, Bells and Strings (Maarika Järvi, flute)

2006–07 • Gavin Bryars: The Porazzi Fragment

2006–07 • Rolf Martinsson: A.S. In Memoriam

2007–08 • Roberto Sierra: Danzas Concertantes for Guitar and Orchestra (Manuel Barrueco, guitar)

2008–09 • Erkki-Sven Tuur: Symphony No. 4, “Magma” (Evelyn Glennie, percussion)

2013–14 • André Previn: Cello Concerto (Daniel Müller-Schott, cello)

2013–14 • Tan Dun: Earth Concerto (David Cossin, percussion)

2018–19 • Kate Whitley: Speak Out (Montclair State University Singers and Chorale and New Jersey Youth Choruses)

East Coast Premieres

2008–09 • Sergio Assad: Interchange for Guitar Quartet and Orchestra

2009–10 • Roberto Sierra: Sinfonia No. 4 (co-commission)

2013–14 • Steve Mackey: Stumble to Grace Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Orli Shaham, piano) (NJSO co-commission)

2018–19 • Andrew Norman: Cello Concerto (Johannes Moser, cello) (NJSO co-commission)

New Jersey Premieres

1986–87 • Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 4 (for the left hand) (Leon Fleischer, piano)

1991–92 • Toru Takemitsu: Star Isle

1991–92 • Michael Ruszczynski: Serenade

1991–92 • George Walker: Poeme for Violin and Orchestra (Cho-Liang Lin, violin)

1992–93 • Conrad Cummings: Denouement

1992–93 • Lowell Lieberman: Flute Concerto (James Galway, flute)

1993–94 • Joan Tower: Silver Ladders

1993–94 • David Ott: Water Garden

1993–94 • Roberto Sierra: SASIMA

1994–95 • Toru Takemitsu: From Me Flows What You Call Time (NEXUS Percussion Ensemble)

1994–95 • William Bolcom: Lyric Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (James Galway, flute)

1995–96 • Bernard Rands: Ceremonial No. 3

1995–96 • Richard Danielpour: Piano Concerto No. 2 (Christopher O’ Riley, piano)

1995–96 • Henryk Gorecki: Symphony No. 3 (Benita Valente, soprano)

1995–96 • Yen-Jun Hua: A Chilly Moon in the Spring

1995–96 • Daniel Asia: Piano Concerto (André-Michael Schub, piano) (NJSO commission)

1996–97 • Ellen Zwilich: Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra (NJSO commission)

1997–98 • Krzysztof Penderecki: Violin Concerto No. 2 (Chantal Juilett, violin)

1997–98 • Aaron Jay Kernis: New Era Dance

1997–98 • Joly Braga Santos: Three Sketches

1998–99 • Steve Reich: Three Movements

1998–99 • Christopher Rouse: Symphony No. 2

1998–99 • Roberto Sierra: Saludo

2000–01 • Bright Sheng: Suite from China Dreams

2000–01 • Richard Danielpour: Toward the Splendid City

2000–01 • Aaron Jay Kernis: Overture for Feet and Meters

2003–04 • Steve Mackey: Lost and Found

2003–04 • Jeffrey Cotton: Elegy to the Victims of September 11 for String Orchestra

2002–03 • Michael Hersch: Ashes of Memory

2003–04 • Sergio Assad: Concerto Originis for Violin, Two Guitars, and Chamber Orchestra (Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin, Sergio and Odair Assad, guitars) (NJSO co-commission)

2007–08 • Michael Daugherty: Deus ex Machina (Terrence Wilson, piano) (NJSO co-commission)

2010–11 • Daniel Bernard Roumain: Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents

2013–14 • Richard Danielpour: Clarinet Concerto (Anthony McGill, clarinet)