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A classic double Grammy

Updated: 2023-02-17 08:24 ( China Daily )
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Conductor Zhang Xian, currently in her seventh season as music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, is one of the world's few prominent female conductors.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Born in Liaoning province's Dandong and exposed to music as a child, Zhang learned to play piano at the age of 3 with her mother, who majored in music education in college, after Zhang's father repaired an old piano for her. Her given name, Xian, means "string" — a reference to her parents' hope she'd become a musician.

Zhang studied piano at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing at age 11 and stayed at the conservatory until she moved to the United States in 1998 to complete her doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music.

Her professional conducting debut was unplanned. The junior at the Beijing-based Central Conservatory of Music stood in for her teacher, conductor Wu Lingfen, who'd fallen ill, to conduct The Marriage of Figaro at the China National Opera House in 1995.Though people wondered what the 22-year-old woman was capable of back then, Zhang soon gained recognition and continued to make history in the male-dominated field.

She took the first prize at the Maazel/Vilar Conductors' Competition in 2002. She became US conductor Lorin Maazel's assistant at the New York Philharmonic that year, and became the Philharmonic's assistant conductor in 2004.

She served as the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra's music director from 2005 to 2007 and has been music director of the Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra of Milan since 2009.

In 2015, Zhang became the first female principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and she was appointed as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra's music director in 2016. She also has a long relationship with the New York Philharmonic and regularly works with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.

"More women from Asian countries are joining the profession. They are very talented and well-trained. They are adding their own voices in the field," says Zhang.

With a hectic schedule this year, she will perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and will also perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga Performing Arts Center this summer.

The conductor says that, over the next two years, she hopes to do more operas, including Tosca with the Norwegian National Opera and making her debut with the Metropolitan Opera next year.

She is keen on introducing Chinese music to a global audience. On Jan 21, she conducted the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra with a concert marking the Year of the Rabbit, performing music pieces by Chinese composers, such as Spring Festival Overture by Li Huanzhi, Violin Concerto No 1 by Zhao Jiping and Er Huang by Chen Qigang.

The conductor initiated the first Lunar New Year celebration five years ago, and this festive tradition gets more vibrant with each iteration, according to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

The conductor has returned to her homeland regularly since 2008, as classical music continues to gain popularity in China.

"It's been four years since I performed in China and hopefully I will return this fall," she says.

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