Photo by Harrison Parrott
Conductor Xian Zhang is one of four women who will conduct the LA Phil this season. (More than double the number of female guest conductors visiting any other major American orchestra.) She was born in Dandong, China, studied at the Beijing Conservatory, and moved to the United States in 1998.
Zhang was the assistant and associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic, music director of the Sioux City Symphony, and the first woman to conduct the Staatskapelle Dresden. In 2009, she was named music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. That appointment made Zhang the first woman to be music director of any orchestra in the entire country of Italy. She held that post until 2016 and is now the orchestra’s conductor emeritus.
Currently, Xian Zhang is the music director of the New Jersey Symphony and the principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She’s guest conducting the LA Phil this weekend in a program that includes the Symphony No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, Ge Xu by Chen Yi, and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Argentine pianist Sergio Tiempo.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Brian Lauritzen: When did classical music come into your life? Was it always part of your life?
Xian Zhang: When I was one or two years old, my mom put me on her lap while playing the piano. They brought home a piano for me when I was three.
BL: I read that your father built a piano and your mother taught you your first lessons. What was that like?
XZ: I was born at the end of the cultural revolution – no musical instrument was supposed to survive it. They were all destroyed into pieces or burned. Nowhere to find a piano, my dad found a way to get some parts and assembled a piano for me. He had to build the exterior wooden shell of the piano and painted it a bright red color. It is still standing in my parents’ home in my hometown Dandong, China.
BL: You had great successes as a conductor at a very young age. When did you know that you wanted to become a conductor?
XZ: I changed paths to conducting when I was 16 and made my debut with The Marriage of Figaro when I was 20. But it was not until I won the Maazel Competition in Carnegie Hall, I realized that I should seriously pursue this and it was probably too late to change path and do anything else. I was already 28.
BL: What is the climate like in China for aspiring young female conductors? Is the path to the podium more difficult for women? And how does that compare to the United States and Europe?
XZ: I had two female role models when I was studying conducting. They both studied at the Moscow Conservatory and both are very well-trained as orchestral/opera conductors. They taught me in a very strict and demanding method. To this day, I still benefit from their training and guidance. I try to do the same now to help young conductors regardless of gender. But female students need an extra boost of confidence because they are still rare. Certainly more rare in continental Europe
BL: This is your second season as music director of the New Jersey Symphony. How’s it going?
XZ: It’s going very well. Growing audience size and enthusiasm. We actually have a big patrons’ group from NJ coming to LA for this week’s concerts. It’s great to have that support from the orchestra, the board of patrons and the public.
BL: You’re also the Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales. As the first woman to hold a titled position with any of the BBC orchestras, that must be a source of pride for you?
XZ: Yes. But pride often comes with extra pressure and self-demand. I wish to pave the way well for the people (younger female conductors) that come later, rather than the other way.
BL: What is your relationship with Chen Yi?
XZ: Of the Chinese musicians from her generation, she is someone who has been an inspiration to me.
BL: Her work, Ge Xu, has antiphonal and folk elements in it. It is atmospheric and also rhythmic. How do you move between all these different sound worlds in this piece?
XZ: This piece is using folk song and dance elements from the minority tribes of Yi 彝族 and Zhuang 壯族. They live in the south of China near Vietnam. They use antiphonal singing to respond to each over long distances. And they are very good at dancing in very colorful tribal costumes. Chen builds the piece in layers: the structure of rhythmic modulation is very clear.
BL: Most audiences are pretty familiar with Prokofiev’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5. They’re probably less familiar with the Symphony No. 6. What draws you to this symphony?
XZ: I became very fond of No. 6 when I first did it in Milan two years ago. The second movement has expansive, soaring melodies just like Romeo and Juliet. The last movement has a very catchy tune and robust rhythm. This was written to pay tribute to the suffering and tragedies caused by war. It’s a darker twin of the Fifth Symphony and it’s more melancholy and personal.
Xian Zhang conducts the LA Phil in concerts on December 8-10. The program features the Symphony No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, Ge Xu by Chen Yi, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Argentine pianist Sergio Tiempo.