Sunday, November 10, 2002

Conductor generates electricity

Xian Zhang, CCM's youngest faculty member, is an international prizewinner and on her way to earning a podium of her own

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Xian Zhang conducting the CCM Concert Orchestra.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
The night before she was to compete in the final round of the first worldwide conductors' competition, Xian Zhang found herself alone in Carnegie Hall.

"I sneaked in because nobody was in the hall," says Ms. Zhang, who had been practicing piano in a dressing room that September day. The petite conductor stepped onto the podium to see how it felt, alone with only the ghosts of the musical giants who have stood on that historic stage. The grueling first rounds of the contest were behind her. At that point, she admits, "You can't prepare. You just do it."

On the line was a $90,000 first prize and a fellowship under American maestro Lorin Maazel, who founded the competition with the philanthropist billionaire Alberto W. Vilar.

[photo] Xian Zhang conducting the CCM Concert Orchestra.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
"I walked out and practiced a bit. I did a little conducting," she says, laughing. "It was a great feeling."

Xian Zhang is 29, tiny and Chinese. In the conducting world, the fact that Ms. Zhang (her full name is pronounced SHE-an Jang) is a woman is still unusual. But on Sept. 28, the University of Cincinnati faculty member beat 362 conductors who had competed over 20 months and five continents. (She shared first prize with Bundit Ungrangsee of Thailand.)

What stood out, says Mr. Maazel, was her conductor's instinct. "Gender barriers no longer exist for conductors," he says. "Xian has the potential for a superb career, not because she is a woman or Chinese, but because she is uniquely gifted."

Her story is the quintessential American dream. The only child of musical parents who lived through China's Cultural Revolution, Ms. Zhang got to Carnegie Hall through sheer grit and stunning talent. Before she stepped in front of the Orchestra of St. Luke's, she never had conducted a professional American orchestra.

[photo] Having just won a worldwide conducting competition, Xian Zhang poses with co-winner Bundit Ungrangsee (second from right) and competition founders Lorin Maazel (left) and Alberto Vilar.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
"At Carnegie Hall, I was sitting in a box closest to the proscenium, and I could see her face," says Karen Faaborg, vice provost at UC. "Watching her expressions, what the musicians were seeing when she was conducting, the emotions that played across her face, and the personal contact that she establishes with them - you could almost read the music on her face.

"Here's this tiny little thing who becomes a giant on the podium. She's so in control, so precise and her messages are so clear, it's almost as though you can see lines going out of her fingers to specific people."

An overnight star

Ms. Zhang, an assistant professor of conducting at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, has lived in Cincinnati for four years. Overnight, she has become a star, with a big-name champion, Mr. Maazel. She's been approached by artist managers, and received offers to "cover" concerts at the New York Philharmonic and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. She'll be in the orchestra pit when Cincinnati Opera mounts La Traviata next summer. And she juggles a full teaching load and concert schedule as a faculty member and conductor of the music school's Concert Orchestra.

"I keep running and running, and never stopped after the competition," says a beaming Ms. Zhang, over lunch at Tink's in Clifton. "I had a rehearsal the day after I got back, right away."

On a Wednesday afternoon in October, Ms. Zhang is again at work, rehearsing Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 with the CCM Concert Orchestra in Corbett Auditorium. Barely over 5 feet tall with short black hair, she is sleek and businesslike in a pantsuit as she goes over her notes with the orchestra. Her English is flawless - another sign of her superior ear.

But when she begins to conduct, the metamorphosis is startling. Her gestures are broad and dramatic; she throws back her head as she lifts her arms high, like some exotic bird of prey. Suddenly, she is 6 feet tall and the orchestra is galvanized.

Birth date and place: June 20, 1973, Dandong, China
Current home: Clifton
Marital status: Married to Lei Yang, 34.
Current projects: Meeting with Maestro Maazel in New York this week; preparing for a concert with the Indiana University Chamber Orchestra (Mozart's Symphony No. 32 and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4) next Sunday.
Where to see her next: Conducting Mozart and Mahler with the CCM Concert Orchestra, 8 p.m. Nov. 25 in Corbett Auditorium (free; 556-4183).
Coming up: Cover conductor for the New York Philharmonic, 2002-04; conductor for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at CCM (Feb. 13-16); conductor for Cincinnati Opera's La Traviata in July.Three words that best describe me: "This is too hard. Can I tell things that I love? 1. Food 2. Staying at home 2. Reading."
When I was a child, I thought I'd grow up to be: "I never thought about it. I was practicing piano all the time."
I'm most proud of: "I rarely am proud of anything. I always feel relieved after a big accomplishment, rather than being proud of it."
The last time I stayed up all night was: "May 30, 2002, when I found out that I was chosen for the Maazel/Vilar final. It was the night before my season finale, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 with the CCM Concert Orchestra. I couldn't sleep because I was too worried about all the music I would have to study during the following summer. However, the Prokofiev went very well."
If I could have dinner with any great composer, it would be: Brahms.
To me, courage is: "(To) keep doing something when you actually dread it."
The best advice I ever got was: "Heart! Heart!" from Lorin Maazel, when I was about to walk on stage on the first day of the Maazel/Vilar final in New York. I say that to myself ever since, when I get nervous. It always helps, because I know I have a good heart."
What I like best about Cincinnati: "Going to concerts. There's a pretty active music life here."
Favorite restaurants: "Boca and the Vineyard. But you can't get great Chinese food here."
What makes me laugh: "My dog, Atreu."
As she guides them through Sibelius' great crescendos and spectacular brass chorales, it's hard to fathom that these are mostly 18- and 19-year olds. The color she elicits from the strings is impressive; the winds are full of personality; the horns are well-blended and warm. This is inspired music.

Works from memory

She rarely consults the score in front of her. It is all committed to memory.

"Working with Xian is a great experience," says violinist Rebecca Appert, 20, a CCM junior. "She knows the music so well, and being so prepared allows her to articulate her ideas to the orchestra pretty quickly. You can really tell that this is what she loves to do. . . . Playing in an orchestra under Xian is something I look forward to every rehearsal."

Mark Gibson, director of orchestral studies at CCM, knew she was good when he gave her a little test. "Just for fun, I said, memorize the rehearsal letters in (Mussorgsky's) Night on Bald Mountain."

She did, and at the rehearsal, she asked the students to play three bars before "J."

"They stared at her. She did not have a score in front of her. How did she know it was three before `J'?" Mr. Gibson says. "But that's precisely it. The conductor's command and ability to make music is totally dependent on how well they know the score. If you know the score down to the rehearsal letters, people listen to you. And she has something to say. She has music in her. She's accepted and fulfilled every conducting challenge that's come her way."

Musical family

One can hardly imagine such a major musical talent coming from the small Chinese port city of Dandong on the Yalu River, dividing China and North Korea. Her father worked in a Western musical instrument factory there, making violins, guitars and pianos. (It has shut down.) Her mother was a music teacher.

Before her parents were married, her mother, Wang Hui, was sent to the countryside to perform hard labor in the fields for studying classical music during the Cultural Revolution. (Mao Tse-tung's movement banned Western music and other arts, and millions died during this time.) Her father, Zhang Yubin, was not singled out because he was learning a craft in a factory.

Ms. Zhang's favorite childhood memory is playing an upright piano her father made for her when she was 4.

"I remember the color was funny; it was kind of red," she says, laughing. "He painted it himself. . . . I remember the little factory. There were several small rooms full of parts, and one or two big pianos back there. My father used to play on them. He was pretty good, but not formally trained. He taught himself."

As a child, she wanted only one thing: to practice the piano.

"My parents didn't force me," she says. "I just did it. I didn't have time for fun in my childhood. My parents would say to me, `go play with your classmates.' I went, but I didn't know what to do. I would just stand there and look."

Exceptional pianist

At 11, she went away to boarding school at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She was already an exceptional pianist: Her audition piece was Beethoven's difficult Pathetique Sonata. By the time she finished high school, she was playing concertos by Liszt and Rachmaninoff.

But she would not have a career as a concert pianist. Like her stature, her hands are small - too small for a career, her piano teacher said. Because she was so musical and had a good ear, he suggested she find "something more intellectual." She laughs at the idea.

She decided to teach ear training and solfege (a method of sight-reading using the names do, re, mi, etc., for the notes). But there were no openings in that area of study.

"I didn't know where to go," she says. "One of the conducting teachers found me and said, "I heard you have really good piano skills. So why don't you study conducting with me, and I'll teach you score reading? Then you can teach score reading to the conductors."

A new world opened up to Ms. Zhang through her teacher, Wu Lingfen. A woman who had studied at the Moscow Conservatory, she became Ms. Zhang's first champion. In fact, Ms. Zhang had something that most aspiring female conductors lack in America - not one, but two female role models. Her other teacher, Zheng Xiao Ying, was former music director of the China Opera House, and the most famous conductor in China.

`Let her try it'

Ms. Wu insisted that her pupil play everything on the piano before conducting it. Together, the two women would play through entire operatic scores, symphonies and concertos - a massive amount of music over their four years together.

"Today, there are a lot of pieces that I haven't conducted before, but I've played them on the piano," Ms. Zhang says.

The teacher's feigned illness resulted in her protÈgÈ's professional debut in China. Ms. Wu was to conduct a production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro with China Opera House. She told the manager, "I'm sick, but I have a student. She's ready. Why don't you let her try it?"

Ms. Zhang was 20. The manager grudgingly let her try a rehearsal.

"I was really skinny at the time. They saw me walk onstage, not even 21 yet, and the players laughed out loud," Ms. Zhang recalls. "It was like, I was this small girl. What are you doing up there? I knew what they were thinking. I just had to ignore it."

"It was sort of a revelation," says Thomas Hilbish, professor emeritus of conducting at the University of Michigan. He taught conducting classes at Central Conservatory for several years while Ms. Zhang was a student, and eventually brought her to the United States.

"What impressed me was that she would always have her lesson perfect, and had a charming personality, was down to earth, always wanted to learn and was always asking questions."

Mr. Hilbish, a choral conductor who has prepared choruses for Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur and other maestros, conducted China's first performance of J.S. Bach's B Minor Mass. Ms. Zhang was his assistant.

"She was instrumental in that, playing the piano, helping with rehearsals," he says. But China lacked the musical resources - including sheet music - for her to progress. He knew she would have few conducting opportunities unless she came to America. He arranged a U.S. visa, and called CCM professor Mr. Gibson, his former student.

`No fear' on stage

Her CCM audition tape was a grainy image of playing Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 at the piano. But even in the dim, fuzzy picture, Mr. Gibson saw a spark of promise. The first time he met her, he was leading a seminar of students through Debussy's Petite Suite.

"She walked in the door - she'd just gotten her visa - and she went over to the piano and played four-hands with me, totally cold and had no fear," he says, still impressed with her level of preparation.

But from her first day at CCM, Ms. Zhang was challenged with a new language, difficult demands and a huge work load. To help pay for tuition, room and board, she was a teaching assistant. That meant, while she was taking courses and conducting rehearsals, she was also the stage crew: moving chairs, music stands and even struggling to move the large, heavy risers for the brass players.

"The academic work was really heavy," says Ms. Zhang. "I just felt I had not time to study scores at all. It was terrible."

Yet, she loved the experience she was getting, learning valuable conducting skills. When CCM had a faculty conducting vacancy in 2000, she prepared the orchestra for each job candidate.

"I didn't even think about trying for that job," she says. "We already had three candidates coming in."

It was the students who proposed that she try for the job. She won it. Ms. Zhang had never held a faculty post before she stepped into her CCM job. The youngest faculty member there, she was technically still a doctoral student. Now she had to prove herself.

"She was immediately thrust into difficult circumstances, conducting operas," Ms. Faaborg says. "She had been conducting opera in Beijing, but there was a sense that this was somehow an untried opera conductor, who didn't have an established reputation."

Future looks good

Nicholas Muni, Cincinnati Opera artistic director who guest-directed The Crucible last year, didn't know about her leap to professor.

"It didn't matter," he says. "I loved working with her. What I look for in an opera conductor is someone who can combine technical control with a sense of forward movement. She has both of those qualities in spades. . . . In the end, in the performance, that overall combination of control and feeling like it's a little risky - that's what makes it exciting. She has that quality."

The self-critical Ms. Zhang insists, "I always feel very underprepared. I feel like I have to know everything in the score. If I don't, I feel uncomfortable on the stage."

"I trust her talent more than she does, even though I don't know music," says Ms. Zhang's husband, Lei Yang, 34, an engineer and former owner of a small company, who gave up his career in China to come with her to Cincinnati. An expert cook, he has meals ready for his wife, irons her outfits and offers moral support and advice, like "don't bend your knees."

Ms. Zhang has no idea what will come after her two-year contract at CCM ends in 2004. It's likely she will have added some major conducting gigs to her resume, such as the New York Philharmonic. Her dream is to have her own podium.

"Hopefully I can have a good orchestra, and we would work very well together and make music. That is my goal," she says.


Conductor generates electricity
Church concerts tune in to the tango
Magician's monsters lurk in his `dungeon'
Writer-activist won't give up the fight
`Adoption Diva' shows the way
KENDRICK: Alive and well
Dance world gives standing ovation to Ballet Russe
Celebrity isn't overwhelming Mayer
Where to eat on Thanksgiving
Serve it this week: Blue Cheese
Get to it!