As divided as COVID-19 made the world throughout 2020, there were people who the pandemic managed to bridge together. The 100th Anniversary celebration of the New Jersey Symphony fell into place as it did, in part, because of the remote connections formed in those early pandemic months.

Steven Mackey. Photo credit: Kah Poon

“This was the first time that Tracy and I had worked together,” composer Steven Mackey wrote to New Jersey Urban News via e-mail regarding the upcoming debut of his collaboration with the former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. “I invited her to collaborate on this project because I admired her poetry, because I knew from her opera libretto experience that she had a natural gift for writing words that would be sung. We had become friends because her daughter and my son were video game friends during COVID.”

Tracy K. Smith reads at the Library of Congress, September 13, 2017. Credit: Slowking4

This year, as the New Jersey Symphony celebrates 100 years of music, the organization’s arranged the world premiere of RIOT. This new music comes from Mackey, whose work with the symphony goes back nearly 30 years, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. Smith was the U.S. Poet Laureate between 2017-2019. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011 for her volume, Life on Mars.

In the summer of 2020, the pair began working on the piece that would become RIOT. However, in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the national upheaval that followed it, the piece’s tone shifted.

As they went along, themes of race and resilience moved to the foreground in the piece. Mackey noted that Smith was vital in exploring some of the heavier topics, sections, phrases like “Can you hold my death in your mind?” evoke a mood beyond what he would have grasped for.

“In the end, however it makes the resilience and affirmation of the end ‘We live!’ a more powerful and meaningful celebration,” he added. Mackey also commented that, all through the process, Smith’s text naturally established perspectives that were expressive and vulnerable in how it depicted “individual and group –
friends, neighbors, ancestors, ghosts.”

Helping bring RIOT to life is Music Director Xian Zhang, the Princeton University Glee Club, and mezzo-soprano Alicia Olatuja. Mackey will also perform a portion of the piece on electric guitar.

From conception to rehearsal, Mackey has loved every step of working on the project to celebrate the New Jersey Symphony’s centennial season. “I loved the daily challenge of finding the right nuance and detail to complement, corroborate or otherwise accompany Tracy’s text,” Mackey said. “I loved fulfilling the broad fantasy of bringing 200 musicians on stage to play and sing with abandon, a fantasy I’ve had since I sang
the Berlioz Requiem in my college choir (when the NJSO was only middle-aged).”

The program includes two works of Mozart—the classical composer’s Symphony No. 25 and his Overture to Don Giovanni—and Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum.

Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. on April 21 at the Richardson Auditorium in Princeton, 8 p.m. on April 22 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and, finally, a 3 p.m. performance at the State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick.

Tickets and more information can be found at

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