Thursday, April 21, 2016

New Jersey Welcomes Its New Maestra

Introducing Xian Zhang, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s incoming music director to a Newark concert audience Thursday, April 7, principal flutist Bart Feller made one thing clear: “It’s maestra, not maestro.” This designation is a novel one for local audiences; when Zhang officially begins her tenure next fall, she will be the first woman to head up a major orchestra in the Tri-State Area, according to the NJSO.

In doing so, Zhang said she was "very honored to be joining and leading the NJSO and to be working along Marin Alsop and JoAnn Falletta and other female colleagues in the states and overseas," in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men. She added, "there will be more [female conductors] coming, and I think the world is ready for us to succeed."

A welcoming audience embraced the incoming music director at Thursday’s concert, a preview of Zhang’s term, which goes through the 2019-2020 season. The performance reflected her strong rapport with the orchestra, as seen through a program of Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave and Fourth Symphony, as well as Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto.

The event also served the purpose of teaching the audience how to correctly pronounce the maestra’s name. Violinist Ming Yang, a native Chinese speaker, offered instructions: she-YEN jhong.

Zhang was born in Dandong, China, a small city on the country’s border with North Korea. She began her professional career leading Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro at Beijing’s Central Opera House when she was only 20 years old. After moving to the United States in 1998, she held multiple conducting posts with the New York Philharmonic. Since 2009, she has led the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, with whom she plans to continue to perform, albeit at a reduced level.

Currently, though, Zhang is preparing to move from Milan to New Jersey with her husband and two sons. She said they were still searching for a home near Newark.

Following the program, Zhang enumerated her ambitious goals for the NJSO once she does officially assume the role of music director.

“What I would really love to build is a sound with this orchestra,” Zhang said of her aspirations for her tenure. She noted that every musical ensemble has an individual sound but with the NJSO, “I wish to give that sound a character.”

Specifically, that means she would like to add “more color in the bass and woodwinds,” a “greater dimensionality and variety,” and more balance between sections, which can be difficult as the acoustics in NJSO’s home auditorium at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center can prevent the musicians from hearing one another.

Already, she noticed an improvement since the last time she conducted with the ensemble in May 2015.

Among her other priorities are broadening the orchestra’s programming with a balance of familiar and new works. She hopes to accomplish this by featuring great pieces by composers who have fallen out of the repertory, like Alexander Zemlinksy; and lesser-known works by familiar figures, citing Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave as an example of the latter.

Programming choral works, such as Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Verdi’s Requiem, along with pieces by Sibelius, which she finds lacking in concert halls in continental Europe, are also on her agenda.

“You have a sound in your head,” Zhang said, explaining that the conductor’s job is to implement it: “The conductor’s vision exists in sound.”

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