On a recent trip to downtown Pittsburgh over the holidays, I passed a 7-Eleven blaring classical music onto the sidewalk. This week, an article in the New York Post explains that the convenience store chain is doing this around the country to drive away homeless people.

That story made me think of the Music Kitchen project in New York. Former NJ Symphony violinist, and Naumberg International Violin Prize-winner Kelly Tompkins’ Music Kitchen organizes live chamber music performances at soup kitchens. They call it “food for the soul,” and by all accounts, customers are intensely grateful.

Violinist Stefan Jackiw

Violinist Stefan Jackiw

These two very different stories about classical music got me thinking. For me, it’s hard to listen to great music in the background. I can’t concentrate on other things, in fact, I have to listen. Mozart blaring from small speakers outside a 7-Eleven is a bit annoying.

On the other hand, I find a great live performance in a nice acoustic setting of music by Mozart, Bach, Puccini, Mahler or Barber intensely moving. Over the years, I’ve often experienced this feeling right here in New Jersey while producing features for State of the Arts.

Let me share a few of my all-time favorite episodes with orchestras! Perhaps one will inspire you to consider going to hear one of these amazing music groups in person.

The New Jersey Symphony is the state’s largest. It’s based in Newark and at NJPAC, but tours the state performing in New Brunswick, Princeton, Morristown and Red Bank. It’s led by Chinese-born conductor Xian Zhang, one the few women leading a major orchestra. In 2019, we profiled Xian and legendary soprano Dawn Upshaw performing jazz composer Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks. It’s a series of songs based on US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s collection of poems by the same name. The performance was deeply moving.

The New Jersey Festival Orchestra is another gem in the state. It’s led by English-born conductor David Wroe and performs in Westfield, at Drew University and elsewhere. In 2015, we filmed their performance of Carl Orff’s epic Carmina Burana. The Newark High School for the Arts choir joined other choirs and created an overwhelming sound.

The Bay Atlantic Symphony is also a wonderful orchestra. Conductor Jed Gaylin is performing and conducting Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 this weekend to celebrate his 25th season as music director. The orchestra performs in venues across Southern New Jersey, thus the name Bay Atlantic, including concert halls at Stockton University, Rowan University, and in Atlantic City and elsewhere. Last fall we filmed their intense and very moving performance of the Britten Violin Concerto with soloist Stefan Jackiw.

There are lots of other great orchestras in the state. In March, State of the Arts will feature the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s world premiere of a new work called the Seven Decisions of Gandhi. Perhaps we’ll see you there?