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Xian Zhang Comes "Home"

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Sep 30, 2005 - 7:26:24 PM in news_2005

(first published in  The Cincinnati Post Sept. 29, 2005)

Chinese conductor Xian Zhang had planned to write her doctoral dissertation for the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music on opera conducting.

Now she’s not so sure.

She may write it on New York Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel’s new opera "1984" instead.

"I hope that it will help people later to know this opera," said Zhang, who has come to know it well since its controversial world premiere in May in London.

In one of the more remarkable transitions in contemporary classical music, Zhang went from a 29-year-old, unknown assistant professor at CCM to Maazel’s assistant. The big jump came in September, 2002 when she won the Maazel/Vilar International Conductors’ Competition in New York.

In the fall of 2004, after serving as Maazel’s cover conductor at the New York Philharmonic for two seasons, she was named its assistant conductor. In July, she was promoted to associate conductor, the first woman ever to hold the position.

The former Clifton resident, now 32, will make her Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall.

On the program are Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition," Chinese composer Chen Yi’s "Momentum" and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D Minor with CSO concertmaster Timothy Lees as soloist.

All are CSO premieres. The Mussorgsky will be heard in the 1954 arrangement by Moscow Conservatory professor Sergei Gorchakov instead of the familiar one by Maurice Ravel. The Mendelssohn Concerto is an early work composed when Mendelssohn was 13, not the well known E Minor Concerto.

Chen Yi’s "Momentum" (1999) draws on Chinese symbolism, Zhang said. "She’s trying to capture this action or movement that she thinks exists in the Chinese spirit, either in the calligraphy or in very old Chinese totems. If you know Chinese calligraphy, everything is in motion. You see this in the music, sometimes weak, sometimes very strong, with very heavy percussion and brass."

The tiny, soft-spoken Zhang (who is just over five feet tall) is quite a power on the podium. Her first performance on a New York Philharmonic subscription concert (in January) earned a glowing review in The New York Times, and she twice been featured in color on its pages (see "Year of the New," Sept. 11).

This season, she will conduct a New York Philharmonic subscription concert in March (Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony), accompany the orchestra’s tours of Europe (they are just back from Germany) and conduct concerts in Vail, Colorado, where the orchestra is in residence during the summer. She and Maazel will conduct Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with Italy’s Toscanini Philharmonic (Parma) on a tour of Israel in December.

Zhang will guest conduct in Minnesota and Colorado and in addition, she has just become music director of the Sioux City (Iowa) Symphony, where she led her inaugural concert Sept. 17.

All the attention and the whirl of activities she has been involved in have been both exhilarating and tiring, she said, by phone from her New York apartment earlier this week.

"It seems like this year just so many things have happened. It’s been like bombing or something. I’m trying to get used to it. I’m not sure it’s even healthy for a person (in a physical sense)."

The media glare has taken some "adjusting to," Zhang said. "I’m always the last person to know. People call and say, ‘Oh, that’s you (in the paper). You should get a copy and look at it.’"

As a female conductor – common in China, where two of her conducting teachers at the Central Conservatory in Beijing were women – Zhang is delighted with the strides women are making in the male-dominated West. "I am very happy about Alsop (Marin Alsop, newly appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony). That’s a huge step. Good for her."

Having her own orchestra in Sioux City, a regional ensemble that performs nine concerts a year, is a challenge she looks forward to, she said. "You learn a whole new set of skills. It’s very different from guest conducting." Zhang’s inaugural concert, all Gershwin, with an introductory piece by Chinese composer Yuen Mao, was a "fun," getting-to-know-you affair. "I realize what I need to do with the group in order for us to improve."

Zhang was born in Dandong, in northeast China near the Korean border. Her parents, both musicians, still live there. Her father, who owns a musical instrument store, made a small piano for her when she was four. She went to Beijing to study at 11 and would have become a pianist if her teacher had not discouraged her, saying her hands were "too small."

She tried to enter the Central Conservatory as a music theory major, but all the spots were taken, so she enrolled in a conducting class.

The fit was perfect there and she became a member of the faculty. She made her professional conducting debut at Beijing’s Central Opera House at age 20 in Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro."

Zhang, who lives near Lincoln Center with her husband Lei Yang, came to CCM in 1998 to pursue her doctorate in conducting. She was invited to join the faculty two years later and also served as music director of the CCM Concert Orchestra. She has conducted Cincinnati Opera productions for the past three seasons ("La Boheme" in June) and will conduct Emmanuel Chabrier’s "L’Etoile" for the opera in June at Music Hall. She will be in Dayton in January to conduct Dayton Opera’s "Cinderella" (Rossini) at the Schuster Center.

There is more than an unfinished thesis to bind Zhang to Cincinnati (and she intends to finish it, she said).

The CCM conducting division is hosting a reception for her during her CSO visit.

"I will see all my old friends and colleagues. It feels like going back home."

Guest conductor Xian Zhang will lead Cincinnati Symphony concerts at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall. CSO concertmaster Timothy Lees will be soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D Minor (CSO premiere). Tickets are $17-$71, $10 for students, half-price for seniors. Call (513) 381-3300 or order online at www.cincinnatisymphony.org.