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sm25-5_EN_p34-35_Xian Zhang + Leduc Moreau_sm23-5_BI_pXX 2020-01-29 11:39 AM Page 34

CONDUCTORS & ORCHESTRAS

XIAN ZHANG
A CONDUCTOR TO WATCH
by CAROL XIONG
MAKING AN IMPRESSION IN AMERICA
After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Beijing, Zhang
moved to the United States in 1998 to pursue a doctorate at the Uni-
versity of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
Because of visa issues, Zhang was only able to arrive mid-semester.
As soon as she landed, she hurried to class, where the professor was
halfway through introducing the conducting students to the school or-
chestra. Zhang was asked on the spot to try her hand at Beethoven’s
First Symphony. Luckily, the piece was one of the very first that Zhang
had studied in her undergraduate years. When she finished conduct-
ing, both the professor and orchestral musicians were stunned by her
musicality and command.
In 2002, Zhang made a further impression when she captured first
prize at the Maazel-Vilar Conductor’s Competition. The late Lorin
Maazel, who was music director of the New York Philharmonic at the
time, quickly took Zhang under his wing. With him, Zhang honed what
Maazel termed “conducting as a form of mental projection.”
Zhang elaborates: “Maazel emphasized how a conductor needs to
hear everything so well in his head that it comes out through his body
movements. What specific body movements you use doesn’t really
PHOTO : B. EALOVEGA
matter when the mental picture is clear. So, one hour of rehearsal with
the orchestra equals at least 20 hours of score study and preparation

X
ian Zhang’s career spans continents. She conducts 80 to 100 con- on my own.”
certs a year, divided between her posts as music director of the On the recommendation of Maazel, Zhang was appointed as the New
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor of York Philharmonic’s assistant conductor in 2002 and associate con-
the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and conductor emeritus of ductor in 2005.
the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. “The years with the New York Philharmonic really opened my ears.
It’s like eating a really delicious dish,” Zhang reflects. “Once you get
DESTINED FOR MUSIC those flavors in your mind, you are opened to a whole new world of
Zhang’s musician parents named her Xian, which is Chinese for the what is possible.”
sound of a stringed instrument. “You could tell that my parents had
already set their minds on making me a musician,” Zhang recalls. ENRICHMENT IN EUROPE
Zhang began her musical studies at age 3, on a piano built by her fa- “The next market to capture was Europe. For us orchestral conductors,
ther. To this day, Zhang credits her background in piano as the “reser- we have to have some sort of background in continental Europe, be-
voir” from which she sources her musicality as a conductor. In a chance cause that’s where the music is from,” Zhang explains. “How they
encounter at age 17, Zhang met professor and conductor Lingfen Wu worked, how they played: you really need to understand that tradition.”
at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, where she was already taking Zhang moved to Europe in 2008 when she became the first woman
piano lessons. At age 20 she made her professional debut when called to conduct the Staatskapelle Dresden. In 2009, she became the first
at the last minute to fill in for Professor Wu. She conducted the The female to lead an Italian orchestra when she was appointed music di-
Marriage of Figaro at the Central Opera House at a special concert rector of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. A year
marking the 50th anniversary of the Central Conservatory. later, Zhang became artistic leader of the Dutch Orchestra and En-
Another key influence at the school was Professor Xiaoying Zheng. semble Academy. Then, in 2015, Zhang was appointed principal guest
“She taught everybody, and she was very strict,” Zhang reminisces. conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, becoming the first
Zheng expected her students to conduct from memory at every lesson, woman to hold a title with any BBC orchestra.
and only allowed them to use a baton when she deemed them ready.
After a year of conducting with bare hands, Zhang earned the nod HOMECOMING AND BEYOND
to use a baton. Bolstered by her European credentials, Zhang returned to the United
“I was at Professor Zheng’s house for a lesson,” Zhang recalls. States in 2016 stronger than ever, as the first woman to serve as music
“We had just finished eating dumplings when she told me that I director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Zhang has also been
could use a baton. I was so excited! She gave me a chopstick from making homecoming appearances in her native China, having guest
the table. She said that if I could handle this, only then would she conducted major Chinese orchestras, toured in China with the BBC
give me a real baton.” National Orchestra of Wales in the 2018-19 concert season, and cham-
The baton that Zhang has used for the past 30 years was given to pioned works by Chinese composers.
her by another key influence at the Central Conservatory. “Professor Yu As of 2020, Zhang is adding principal guest conductor of the Mel-
Feng actually had the length cut specifically to fit my hand, and though bourne Symphony Orchestra to her ever-growing résumé. We may only
I’ve looked all over the world for something like this, I have never imagine what exciting things lay ahead for a career that is ever on the
found a replacement. When I hold it, it feels like a part of my body.” rise. One thing is for sure: Xian Zhang is a conductor to watch. LSM

Xian Zhang will be conducting the OSM on Feb. 9 (www.osm.ca) and the final
round of the Concours musical international de Montreal (CMIM) on May 12–13
(www.concoursmontreal.ca).

34 FEBRUARY/MARCH 2020

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