Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang’s CV has a refrain: “the first woman to:” conduct The Staatskapelle Dresden; to be named music director of an Italian symphony orchestra; to lead the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi; to be music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; the first female conductor to be named to a titled post with any BBC orchestra; the first woman conductor to ever conduct the annual Prom. A 2023 multiple Grammy award winner, Maestra Zhang made her Metropolitan Opera debut this year with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly which continues until May. She makes her NSO debut with a program featuring music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Billy Childs, and Dvořák’s Symphony No.9. 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was named after the poet Samuel Taylor-Coleridge (Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, etc.). His father was a doctor from Sierra Leone, his mother was British. His maternal grandfather taught him the violin, and his musical development was so rapid he enrolled in the Royal College of Music at 15. By 21, he was “already making a name for himself.” Elgar described him as “far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the younger men” and recommended him for the Three Choirs Festival 1896, for which the 23-year-old wrote his Ballade for orchestra. This turned out to be a big hit for the young composer. Audiences loved the dramatic opening, the passionate love theme in the middle, and the triumphant ending. Sir Arthur Sullivan, who attended the premiere, wrote “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original—he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour—at times luscious, rich and sensual.” 

2 months later, Coleridge-Taylor premiered Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, inspired by Longfellow’s 1855 poem, The Song of Hiawatha, even naming his son Hiawatha!  

His incorporation of folk music from his mixed heritage in his works led to comparisons with Dvořák. In fact, parts of the New World Symphony were also inspired by The Song of Hiawatha. In an article in the New York Herald Dvořák explained that the second movement largo with its gorgeous English horn solo was a “sketch or study for a later work, either a cantata or opera...which will be based upon Longfellow’s Hiawatha.” He added that the 3rd movement scherzo was “suggested by the scene at the feast in Hiawatha where the Indians dance.” Dvořák also studied African American spirituals with Harry Burleigh, one of the students at New York’s National Conservatory. Dvořák claimed that he would never have written the music if he had not seen the “wide open spaces of America.” 

It goes without saying that the 1893 Carnegie Hall premiere was a triumph, and the symphony that celebrated “the new world” of America was launched into the even newer world of outer space, when Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took a recording of the symphony to the moon in 1969.  

Poetry is also the inspiration for Grammy Award-Winner Billy Child’s Diaspora, Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra. The 3 literary works are Africa’s Lament by Nayyirah Wadeed, If We Must Die by Claude McKay and And I Still Rise by Maya Angelou. 

The concerto tells the story of the African diaspora in three movements: Motherland, If We Must Die, And I Still Rise. 

In Motherland, the soprano sax paints a picture of peace before a battle ensues between the slave traders and future slaves. The composer notes that a solo cadenza describes “being captured like a wild animal” destined for a “future hell.” 

In the second movement, If We Must Die, a loud blast in the orchestra represents the slave ship. Now the alto saxophone predominates. 

The final movement, And Still I Rise is about black empowerment, with the church as the nexus of that power. It starts out with a hymn-like passage, in alto sax and piano, reminiscent of a Sunday church service. The piece ends with a victorious fanfare. 

Soloist Steven Banks, whose stated mission is to establish the saxophone as a central part of the sound of classical music in the 21st century, was awarded the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2022, and is presently touring with this concerto, which was commissioned by nine orchestras including the NSO. Banks himself is a composer and serves on the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music. 


Xian Zhang, conductor 
Steven Banks, saxophone 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Ballade for Orchestra Op.33 
Billy Childs: Saxophone Concerto 
Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No.9 “From the New World” 

April 11-13, 2024 

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