Xian Zhang | Meet the Maestro2:30, 20th May 2014
Chinese American conductor Xian Zhang made a splash at the Proms last year with her Italian orchestra.
It was perhaps ironic that during the 2013 Proms the rave reviews for Xian Zhang and her Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi arrived well before Marin Alsop had set foot on the Last Night’s podium. The Guardian said that their Prom with tenor Joseph Calleja devoted to Verdi and Tchaikovsky ‘crackled with electricity’. It was an auspicious UK debut for the orchestra; and its ‘maestra’ could not have been happier.
Zhang, 40, has been at the helm of the orchestra – which is known at home as simply La Verdi – for five years, the first woman ever appointed music director of an Italian symphony orchestra. She has witnessed a sea-change in attitudes. ‘In the beginning it was like no-man’s land – or no-woman’s land!’ she laughs. ‘People here had never seen a woman conductor before. Of course I arrived without realising that. It was probably better that way, because otherwise I would have been way too intimidated.’
Before her arrival the orchestra had spent six years without a principal conductor after Riccardo Chailly moved on. At first, Zhang says, she worked hard on core repertoire to build up the ensemble’s precision and improve the sound. ‘I think we saw a difference within three years. The response to our Prom was wonderfully encouraging – the musicians were very happy and proud.’ Last season in Milan, she says, their single ticket sales went up by 38%, despite Italy’s difficult economic climate.
Zhang was born in Dandong, near the Chinese-Korean border, where her mother taught the piano and her father was an instrument maker. As a child she took her first lessons from her mother on a piano repaired by her father. They were both fine musicians, she recounts, but the Cultural Revolution had made it impossible for them to fulfil their promise; western music, pianos included, had been banned.
Attending the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, Zhang started to learn conducting at 16; she moved to Cincinnati in 1998 to study for a doctorate. Still, she never quite considered conducting as a career until she won the first Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition at Carnegie Hall. After that, Lorin Maazel soon appointed her his assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. ‘I spent five years there – it was a period of stretching my standards to the highest possible level,’ she says.
She made an impressive debut with ENO a little over a decade ago, conducting La bohème, but despite a fine track record in opera, pressures of time mean that she prefers to concentrate on symphonic repertoire, plus one or two opera productions per year. This spring she is coming to Cardiff to conduct Nabucco for Welsh National Opera. She has also become the artistic leader of the Nederlandse Orkest- en Ensemble-Academie.
In China she now makes regular concert tours through the major cities. ‘I think that in ten years’ time perhaps I will be ready to take on more responsibility in helping orchestras there,’ she says. ‘At present it’s still too early for them to accept someone from outside.’
As for what she wryly terms ‘the woman conductor question’, Zhang suggests: ‘It’s a matter of time. I think the public is in general very open, but orchestras and people who work in this environment have to be perhaps less self-protective – this is stopping more progress from happening earlier. They don’t necessarily have to be positive about it, but at least to be neutral and see if people are gifted before considering if they are a woman or a man.’
In Milan, though, she has spotted a surprise advantage. ‘A quintessential point in Italian culture is that people greatly respect a mother figure,’ she says. ‘Maybe that helped me to be accepted as conductor of an orchestra. It makes sense! When I first arrived I was seven months pregnant with my first son, so that was how people saw me for the first time. At my first concert after my second son was born, some of the audience gave me presents for the baby. I was so touched.’
Eventually, she adds, women conductors should be commonplace. ‘I think things will change; I have faith in that. In 50 years’ time there will be lots of women doing this, assuming classical music survives – and I believe it will.’
WNO’s Nabucco conducted by Xian Zhang is at the Wales Millennium Centre from 31 May to 14 June, before touring to Birmingham and the Savonllina Festival