Taking her place

By Chen Nan | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-06-22 07:43

Zhang Xian stands as one of the world's few prominent female conductors. Chen Nan reports.

Zhang Xian's professional debut was unplanned. The junior at the Beijing-based Central Conservatory of Music stood in for her teacher, conductor Wu Lingfen, who'd fallen ill, to conduct The Marriage of Figaro at the Central Opera House in 1995.

"Some people complained upon learning Wu wouldn't be at the rehearsal," the 44-year-old recalls.

"Others giggled when I took to the podium. They wondered what a 22-year-old woman was capable of. But ... everything went smoothly."

 Taking her place

Zhang Xian works with celebrated orchestras around the world and has regularly performed in China since 2008. Photos Provided to China Daily

 Taking her place

Conductor Zhang Xian and Taiwan violist Huang Hsin-yun at a rehearsal at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.

Zhang has continued to make history in this male-dominated field.

She became the BBC National Orchestra of Wales' first female new principal guest conductor in 2015.

And she was appointed as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra's music director last year.

She also has a long relationship with the New York Philharmonic and regularly works with the London Symphony and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.

Zhang lives in New Jersey and has returned to her homeland regularly since 2008, as classical music has continued gaining popularity in China. She gives about 100 performances a year.

On June 17 and 18, she conducted two concerts at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, performed by the China NCPA Orchestra. The performance featured Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 4 in F Minor, Op 36, Chopin's Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op 22 and Chinese composer Chen Qigang's Peking Opera-inspired piece, Er Huang. Taiwan violist Huang Hsin-yun and pianist Zhang Haochen from Shanghai played in the two concerts.

Zhang will cooperate for the first time with US soprano Renee Fleming for the Beauty of Voice: A Night with Zhang Xian and Renee Fleming concert on Saturday. The China NCPA Orchestra will present the concert of such songs as Overture to La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi, I Feel Pretty from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Spanish Dance No 1 from La Vida Breve by Manuel de Falla.

Taking her place

"I worked with the China NCPA Orchestra about two years ago in Beijing," Zhang says.

"The young musicians are passionate and open-minded."

She wishes to work with the orchestra in New York during its US tour in the fall.

Zhang says all the pieces for the Saturday concert are well known songs from France, Spain, Italy and the United States.

Zhang is often asked why there aren't more female conductors.

"More women are joining the profession," she says.

"It's a matter of time. Audiences will see them (onstage) in maybe 10 or 15 years. It's not only difficult for female conductors but for any young conductors to be noticed these days."

She's coaching several women in the US.

Zhang doesn't believe gender is related to conducting.

"It's about musical ability and personality," she says.

Zhang was born in Liaoning province's Dandong and was exposed to music as a child.

Her given name, Xian, means string - a reference to her parents' hopes she'd become a musician.

Her father repaired an old piano for her, and her mother, who majored in music education in college, taught her to play at age 3.

She studied piano at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music at age 11 and stayed at the conservatory until she moved to the US in '98 to complete doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati College's Conservatory of Music.

"I'm lucky to have had enlightening mentors," Zhang says of her female conducting teachers in China, including Zheng Xiaoying.

Taking her place

She took first prize at the Maazel/Vilar Conductors' Competition in 2002.

She became US conductor Lorin Maazel's assistant at the New York Philharmonic that year and became the philharmonic's assistant conductor in 2004.

"I learned so much from him (Lorin Maazel), such as the importance of planning rehearsals," Zhang says.

"During those five or six years in New York, I listened to a lot of music by different musicians, which was great training and broadened by vision. I met great musicians there, who gave young conductors like me lots of advice."

She served as the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra's music director from 2005 to 2007 and has been the Milan's Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra's since 2009.

"I worked with different orchestras every week when I was young," Zhang says.

"But now, I work with two to three orchestras regularly. The chemistry between orchestras and conductors is subtle."

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(China Daily USA 06/22/2017 page9)

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