Sunday, July 6, 2003

Successful conductor Zhang juggles new demands

Catching up

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Xian Zhang
A lot of music is playing in Xian Zhang's head.

The tiny conductor (she stands barely more than 5 feet tall) was recapping everything that has happened since co-winning first prize in a new conducting contest founded by New York Philharmonic maestro Lorin Maazel and philanthropist Alberto W. Vilar. The finals were in New York's Carnegie Hall last September.

"It's more demanding now, in terms of expectations of other people - and also myself," says Zhang. "You want to live up to that level that people hope you have. So it's very challenging."

In March, she conducted six educational concerts with the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York. After that, she was a "cover" conductor for two weeks of Russian programs led by Mstislav Rostropovich at the New York Philharmonic, where she won a fellowship as part of her prize.

In May, she flew to Italy, where she made her Western opera debut, conducting Mozart's Don Giovanni in Busseto, the hometown of Verdi.

This week, she will make her American opera company debut, when she leads Verdi's La Traviata with Cincinnati Opera, Thursday, Saturday and July 18. (Tickets: 241-2742 or

She has done all this while teaching at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where she is assistant professor of conducting - which included leading concerts with the CCM Philharmonia. In February, she was in the CCM pit for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

Zhang has come a long way from the small Chinese city of Dandong, where she was born 30 years ago. in the living room of her rented Clifton home stands a shiny new Yamaha baby grand - purchased with part of her $45,000 prize money as "a Christmas present to myself," she says, laughing.

She needs that piano, because she studies orchestra scores by playing through them on the piano, a practice she is also doing for La Traviata.

"My favorite moment is the clarinet solo, after (Violetta) writes a letter to Alfredo. That's the best moment of the whole opera," she says.

Lying on her piano are scores by Krzysztof Penderecki, including his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, that she is studying to perform at a Krakow festival in September. She is also waiting to confirm concerts in Beijing this fall, conducting Beethoven's Triple Concerto with the famous Eroica Trio.

Next February she will make her New York Philharmonic debut in two Young People's concerts, leading Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

Also on her agenda: Finishing her doctorate at CCM - and stepping up her guest conducting.

"Next year might be my last year at CCM," admits the busy maestra.

Wherever she is, there's no doubt her name will be in lights. Her proud husband, Lei Yang, is writing a book about her life, which he hopes to finish by next spring. Its title? The Road to Carnegie Hall.


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