NEWARK, New Jersey — Since becoming the music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in 2016, the dynamic conductor Xian Zhang has worked steadily to reflect diversity and inclusion through the institution’s programming, outreach initiatives and guest artists. This was crucial in a city where a majority of residents were Black and Latino; it also spoke to Zhang’s own experience as one of a small number of Asian female conductors leading major ensembles. These priorities were in evidence on Friday when, 557 days after its last full orchestra concert (because of the pandemic), the New Jersey Symphony opened its new season at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on a balmy night in Newark.
The program opened with the premiere of Michael Abels’s “Emerge.” Best known for his scores for the contemporary horror films “Get Out” and “Us,” Abels describes this eight-minute piece as suggesting a group of highly trained musicians getting back together after a long break, a scenario that speaks to the moment.
It begins with an evocation of an orchestra tuning up. We hear the oboe playing a single pitch of A, which the other instruments pick up on. Soon the various players break off into short three-note melodic bits, quivering strings, fidgety rhythms and sustained sonorities that keep swelling and diminishing. During one episode the players seem almost to be in free-for-all, somewhat reminiscent of the way many orchestras warm up on the stage as the audience drifts in, creating a borderline-annoying mass of sounds. But the music here becomes as a restless aural collage pierced with flinty dissonance. Soon various players take off in bluesy solos, or engage in fleeting bits of counterpoint. Finally, the musicians team up in passages of mellow lyricism, skittish bursts, manic scales, all leading to a brassy, celebratory coda.
Next up was the composer and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “Voodoo Violin Concerto,” a 25-minute work from 2002 that reflects his Haitian heritage but also fuses elements of hip-hop, jazz and classical contemporary styles. The solo part drives this work, and Roumain played commandingly on a violin that was amplified, including electronics with which he could eerily process certain sounds. In the first section, “Filter,” the violin jumps into orchestral atmospherics with perpetual-motion, repeated-note riffs. The instruments respond with pungent backup music for woodwinds, and jarring, jazzy full orchestra harmonies.
There were extended episodes where Roumain improvised winding strands of frenzied yet lyrical lines over orchestra music that maintains a respectful distance. Though an unabashedly episodic work, with passages evoking call-and-response jazz styles and a bravura cadenza that tweaks the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the concerto still has compositional sweep that carries into “Prayer,” the mellow, elegiac second section, with the violin playing over a chorale-like piano music, and a funky, wailing “Tribe” finale.
Though it’s hard to imagine that, as a music student at a traditional conservatory in Beijing, Zhang could have imagined performing a score alive with jazz, blues and improvisation, she led a confident and irrepressible account. Roumain, who has collaborated excitingly with Bill T. Jones, Savion Glover and other creators from outside classical music, this season begins an appointment as the orchestra’s Resident Artistic Catalyst, and the title says much about his ambitious in this role. After the concerto, he spoke to the audience about the responsibility we all have to love one another and be creative during what has been “a time of death and despair.”
Zhang then led an elegant, rich-toned and spirited account of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The slow movement was especially fine, taken at a true Allegretto pace, steady yet never forceful, restrained yet coursing with inner intensity. It was a long-awaited and rewarding return for an essential orchestra.