Madame Conductor Featured

A virtuoso who goes beyond the boys' club



27 March 2013

Although it is no longer a rarity, the presence of a woman on the conductor’s podium still raises eyebrows. It is a testament to Xian Zhang’s enormous talent and profound love and knowledge of music that the moment her baton begins its dance, any doubt naysayers may have dissolve into thin air, as they all invariably become enthralled by the magic that she, along with her orchestras, creates.

Ms. Zhang first started playing piano at the age of four on an instrument built by her father, a violin and guitar maker by trade in Dandong, a city in western China very close to the border of North Korea. By the age of eleven she was attending the pre-college boarding school at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she later received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Yet at the age of sixteen her piano teacher told her that her hands were too small for the instrument of her choice, which is when she discovered conducting. Her first teacher was a woman whose teacher in turn was also a woman. Gender was never an issue for Ms. Zhang in her native China because under Communism all women worked, and hers was simply another profession. In the Western world where conducting was very much considered a boys’ club, she has won over her audiences and critics worldwide with what a New York Times critic described as “Her incisive gestures (that) elicit vivid performances from musicians who have seen it all.” Perhaps what is most surprising is how this petite woman commands an orchestra not with severity and a sense of superiority commonly associated with the profession, but with self-assurance, calmness and kindness. Musicians who work with her readily sing her praises citing her non-authoritarian approach, which is somewhat of a rarity in this world.

Ms. Zhang was entrusted with her first conduction at the age 20, thanks to the generosity and far-sightedness of her teacher who recognized her abilities, and she became the youngest faculty member at Beijing’s Central Conservatory.
Four years after moving to the United States, she went on to win the Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition which effectively launched her illustrious career which has included posts at the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, China Philharmonic, the Tokyo Symphony and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic to name just a handful. She has over the years consolidated her reputation not only as an orchestra conductor but as an opera conductor as well and will debut at Milan’s renowned La Scala opera house in 2014.

She was also the first woman to conduct the Staatskapelle Dresden in its principal hall as well as the first woman to conduct in Italy where she became Music Director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi in 2008. She continues in the post today while also continuing her work with NJO, the Dutch Orchestra and Ensemble Academy, where she is Artistic Director.

Ms. Zhang perhaps summed it up best when she said: “…everything is a matter of race, age, your sex, your background, everything – it’s complex. I am a mixture of all the minority qualities, so it’s a waste of time to figure it out and I instead do what I can do and what I like to do.”

In addition to phenomenal talent, Ms. Zhang is also apparently blessed with a no-nonsense and very feminine pragmatism that ensures that we will be able to hear her work for years to come.

Fondazione Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro Sinfonico
di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Via Clerici, 3
20121 Milan
Tel. 02 8338 9329