Review: Xian Zhang’s passion for music fills Southam Hall

Wednesday’s NACO concert had all the makings of a jaded yawnfest: a tame, old-fashioned program featuring a Rossini overture, a Mozart piano concerto, and a later Beethoven symphony. But with the explosively energetic Xian Zhang’s at the helm, this performance was more like a jolt of triple espresso.

Zhang’s conducting  radiates pure, genuine joy. She combines complete control, clarity and efficiency with infectious exuberance. She’s the kind of conductor who is always asking for more — more luscious vibrato, more attack, more speed — and when she gets it, she breaks into a delighted smile. Zhang may be petite, but make no mistake: she always conducts to the very back of the hall, with huge, bold gestures and laser precision, lobbing cues to the timpani with all the panache of LeBron shooting three-pointers.

Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri overture bubbled along with sunny, boisterous good humour; the trumpets delivering just the right amount of military ping.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 was an elegant vehicle for Louis Lortie’s magnificently noble pianism. This was a well-fed, forward-looking interpretation, the work’s surprising angles polished to round perfection by Lortie’s seamless legato and warm, creamy sound. The opening theme of the second movement sounded positively Schubertian in its melancholy lyricism. The dramatic cadenza that ended the first movement was the pianist’s own.

Lortie plays Mozart concertos like chamber music, and Zhang supported him with congenial, playful, deeply expressive accompaniment, encouraging especially gorgeous star turns from the woodwind ensemble.

Post intermission, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was a thrill a minute. The introduction was suspenseful, but with a twinkle in its eye, bursting into an irresistibly buoyant Vivace. In the second movement, Zhang — who conducted from memory — gave a master class in how to build layers of orchestral colour for maximum emotional impact. The diminuendo just before the shift to A major was stunning. The finale galloped along at an exhilarating pace, Zhang playfully double-dog daring the orchestra to keep up with her.

The hollering, whooping audience brought Zhang back for several bows. Inspired musicians, impressed fans: let’s hope NACO brings her back soon.

Concert repeats Thursday night.

Share Post
Written by

Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.