Conducting from the heart

Updated: 2012-07-06 12:29

By Mariella Radaelli (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Conducting from the heart

Zhang Xian, one of the leading female conductors in the world, says music cannot exist without emotions. Nora Roitberg / for China Daily

Orchestra Leader Talks of Her Stellar Rise on the World's Classical Music Stage

Heart, heart, heart. There is no doubt that Zhang Xian has it. "Of course, it's natural," says the distinguished Chinese conductor, now serving in Milan as the music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, aka La Verdi.

"Music cannot exist without emotions," she says, "because you turn them into musical shape." Emotions, she argues, are the essential core of music.

Born in 1973 in Dandong, in Northeast China's Liaoning province, Zhang is diminutive in stature and full of pep. She conducts from within. An electrifying persona materializes when she leaps passionately onto the podium.

Her precise, taut and elegant gestures produce the sound. She gives a movement in the air, and the sound comes forth. Clarity and passion, yet precision and a respect for the composers' intentions as notated in the musical score, are the hallmarks of her conducting style.

I met Zhang in her dressing room at La Verdi auditorium situated in one of the most picturesque and romantic parts of Milan. She lives in the area with her 3-year-old son, Edan, and her husband, Lei Yang, an engineer turned novelist.

She was seven months pregnant when she first mounted the La Verdi podium in 2009, after arriving from the United States. Now, at 38, she is one of the leading female conductors in the world. The first female to conduct in Italy, as well the first woman in Germany to direct the Staatskapelle Dresden, she pursues her career with tight discipline.

Zhang began piano lessons at the age of 3 under the guidance of her mother. Her father made violins and cellos and had his own shop.

When she was 11, she entered the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she later received her bachelor's and master's degrees. She remembers that she tried "really hard to become a good pianist. But I was not happy with the results, even though I was practicing eight hours a day. I found it unfulfilling."

For this reason, aged 16, she switched to conducting. "I met my teacher, Wu Lingfen, an extraordinary woman who is now 68. She offered to train me. From that moment on I felt like myself, under her protective wing."

Being a female conductor was never a big issue in China, Zhang says, "perhaps in part because all women worked". She first had a baton thrust into her hand in Beijing, while preparing singers at the piano for a performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which her teacher was to conduct at the Central Opera House. But the night before, Wu told her to direct it. If Zhang panicked, she didn't let it show. Everybody was instantly impressed by her natural confidence.

Zhang Xian, whose name reflects her chosen career - it translates as "open string" - left China for the US in 1998.

"I was 25, when I began my training at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music," she says. Winning the Maazel/Vilar conducting competition in 2002, was "the starting point of my international career. It gave me visibility."

The initial encounter with maestro Lorin Maazel was crucial in the launch of her career. "He was very supportive," she says. That success led to her debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2004, and Maazel, the orchestra's music director, appointed her associate conductor soon after. Since then she has appeared with every major orchestra in the world.

She is particularly excited by the music of Brahms. "He is a composer whose music I absolutely adore," she says. "A pianist himself, Brahms knew the instrument more intimately than any other. He speaks so much to me, because his abstract music, so pure, gives me the widest possibilities of imagination."

She has a strong attachment to Russian composers, such as Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. But her biggest love is conducting Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem. "Every one of us would like to have that uplifting mass play at our funeral," she says.

Zhang has also championed Chinese composers, such as Chen Yi and Huang Ruo.

She is so proud of what the La Verdi musicians have accomplished with her in three years of hard work together.

"The ensemble plays with much more color now, so it's such a wonderful, rewarding experience for me. It's like planting a seed and seeing a flower growing and flourishing. I am so satisfied with the progress they have made," she says.

She intends to stay in Italy until the 2015 Milan Expo. "Italy is still very inspiring for an artist. It's the land where ideas bloom. In this country one absorbs so much."

Will she return home to China? "Yes, I could go back," she says, adding that it would be to live in Beijing.

"I feel attached to it. It's like home to me. Most of my friends are there, my old classmates, my teachers as well. I feel a bit nostalgic about Beijing.

"China is growing incredibly, musically speaking, and Beijing is the main center of Western classical music production. China's better financial situation goes to music's advantage."

Chinese orchestras are multiplying, "and they are learning a lot. But they need to grow technically. It's just a matter of time, with more training and an enlarged repertoire, they will improve."

Zhang also has an affinity for words as well as music. "I miss all those old bookshops crammed with Chinese books, offering a fantastic selection of the greatest poets who lived in the Tang era (AD 618-907)."

Her favorite is Li Bai, but she loves Du Fu, too. Poetry plays a central role in her musical imagination. "It is written in my Chinese DNA," she says. "We honor and revere such great poets of exquisite simplicity and fragility. They are immortal to us."

This is reflected in the attention she pays to the meaning of the text when she directs opera. As an enthusiastic opera conductor, she made an outstanding debut with La Boheme for the English National Opera in 2007.

Before each performance, Zhang goes through her own ritual. "I prepare myself taking a nap. It helps. The most important thing, and the most difficult to get when you are on the podium, is to be mentally focused. A good performance needs a focused director. But the attention to every detail can only come from practice."

Maazel remains a great inspiration. His best advice to her, she says, was: "If you don't know how to enjoy your life first, you won't have a good and long career. I think he was absolutely right."

She was recently named music director of NJO/Dutch Orchestra and Ensemble Academy. Next year she is due to make her debut at La Scala in Milan and a return to the English National Opera.

Finally, she recalls Maazel walking up to her before the final concert of that breakthrough 2002 competition in Carnegie Hall, whispering in her ear "Heart, heart, heart."

For China Daily

(China Daily 07/06/2012 page28)