Sticking it to the man: Xian Zhang has taken the baton and is running with it

Xian Zhang. Photo: B. Ealovega.

As a child, Xian Zhang started studying piano with her mother on an instrument built by her father. By age 11, she was in the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. At age 16, she switched to conducting.

“The real starting point (of her conducting career) is with my piano teacher (in Beijing). I was headed to a career as a concert pianist and my piano teacher was not very happy with my size especially the size of my hands. I am a small person and I have small hands.”

He told her he wasn’t convinced she would have the power that is needed to be soloist.

“But he also knew that I had a good ear and perfect pitch and I had a very good memory. He suggested that I learn composition.”

At the same time she met a female professor who was leading a choir.

“She offered to teach me for a few months.” That led her to conducting.

“Your whole path can change in an instant,” she says. “My parents trained me as a pianist from the age of three. I went to Beijing and was accepted at age 11. I left home really young. But there were a lot of kids there who were younger than me, aged nine or 10.”

She was taught in the Russian tradition of musical instruction. Zhang thrived.

“I do think such concentrated training in music, when you are young, before you become a teenager, makes a serious mark on you as a musician. And even though I changed later on, the keyboard is still having an impact on me. Any work that I touched as a pianist, such as Beethoven or Debussy, it comes back to me as a conductor.”

She says she didn’t find this system of musical education restrictive.

“It gave me insight … so much so that when I hear a piece of music I immediately relate to for example a Bach French Suite which I played when I was 10.” Her training was a “huge fortune for me.”

Most young Chinese musicians these days go to Germany after college, she says. “When I went to America in 1998 it was the destination of choice. Over the years, the U.S. has been harder to get into and Chinese students have stopped coming as often.”

Zhang, however, has maintained her connection with the U.S. She is currently in her second year as the music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, based in Newark.

If there is a role model for ground-breaking female music directors Xian Zhang just might fit the bill. She has held many posts in her career including being the first woman to ever run one of the BBC orchestras.

She believes that the podium is opening up to women conductors.

“I really think the climate is changing. People are realizing there is an issue and they are hiring female conductors. When I was in my 20s, this was not the case, but in past few years it has really changed and I think it’s going to speed up.”

She was just in Rome, filling in for an ailing male conductor, and took a look at the concert schedule. In the same line-up she saw a podium appearance by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla who leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the U.K.

“Even five years ago you would never see two female conductors in one month of concerts,” she said. “Once people get used to this change the question will go away. I am waiting for that moment.”

As conductor, Zhang is not interested in being a big personality.

“When I am conducting, the music is greater than me as a person. Music itself is a much grander thing than me.”

In terms of physicality or personality, she believes music is divine as is, it doesn’t need embellishing.

In China, western classical music is a very big deal, she says. Millions of Chinese children are learning how to play piano.

“People like me, who grew up learning it, we love western music even more than a kid from New York. It becomes a part of our being. From a very early age this music was in us.”

This love affair with western classical music is reflected in enthusiastic and young audiences.

“I was in Hangzhou a few weeks ago and the audience was so young and so enthusiastic. They were so into it. I believe after the economic growth in past decade in China so many people have become so wealthy. And so many young people have good jobs and good pay.”

Now, she says, young Chinese are eager to know about culture. “They hunger for it. That’s really special. They want to experience beauty.” And they turn out to concerts and other events in droves.

Meanwhile, “in New Jersey, we have to try many different things to get people to notice us. But it is the opposite in China. When you do a major symphonic concert, people are eager to come. They can’t wait. It’s amazing. It’s really special, especially considering the amount of people there.

“After the concert in Huangzhou, they had a signing session and there were 300 people in line with kids from five to 15 with their parents. You don’t see that in North America.”

After 20 years, she can’t imagine going home permanently, but she does go a few times every year for concerts and to see her parents.

In Ottawa, Zhang will conduct Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the overture to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with Louis Lortie as the soloist.

The Beethoven is one of her favourites.

“I like the fact that it is very compact. You never get bored hearing it.”

She conducts Beethoven a lot.

“Everybody does. It is a requirement of an orchestral conductor that you must know all of his symphonies. I do a lot of Tchaikovsky too.”

She says she feels close to Russian composers such as Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky.

These days if she plays the piano it’s for personal pleasure but she doesn’t regret not being a soloist and those long lonely hours practicing. And she loves to study a score.

“I love everything about it … the texture, the harmony. It allows a deeper investigation of music. It gives me much more space to use my imagination, to be a bigger musician and a better musician as well.

“I feel much more complete and fulfilled than when I was a piano student playing a Beethoven concerto by myself. The orchestra is a better tool for me.”

The National Arts Centre Orchestra conducted by Xian Zhang
Louis Lortie, soloist
Where: Southam Hall
When: April 18 and 19 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.