Q&A with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Music Director Xian Zhang

Xian Zhang

Harrison Parrott HMU Elizabeth Rita / assistant Mariona Vilaros / studio Ermine London

By Nancy Plum 

“I always believe once you get the people to come and listen to the music, the music will do its magic and will work its own way to reach people’s hearts.”

September 2016 marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra as internationally renowned Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang takes the helm of the NJSO as the ensemble’s 14th Music Director.  In the coming season, Zhang will conduct seven NJSO subscription classical concerts, including three performances in Princeton. Zhang’s music education includes training at Beijing’s Central Conservatory and doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.  She made her professional debut conducting Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at Beijing’s Central Opera House at the age of twenty, and since then has conducted orchestras and opera companies throughout the world, including a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with The Philadelphia Orchestra in which this writer performed.  Zhang was appointed the New York Philharmonic’s Assistant Conductor in 2002, subsequently becoming their Associate Conductor and the first holder of the Arturo Toscanini Chair.  In describing her relationship with the NJSO, Zhang said “There was an instant connection the first time I conducted the NJSO.  Ever since then, every time we collaborated, these musicians impressed me with their commitment, intelligence and musicianship.  I am proud to become the leader of an orchestra that shares my belief in the power of music to transform lives, both in and outside of the concert hall. The NJSO’s mission of performing music that touches hearts and engaging with communities and students throughout the state of New Jersey is one I fully embrace. I am looking forward to getting to know our musicians, patrons, artistic partners and the students in our education programs.”  Zhang will be moving with her family to New Jersey from Milan, Italy.

Nancy: Where exactly are you from in China, and what was it like growing up there?

Xian: I was born in a small city near Korea called Dandong.  I studied piano with my parents beginning at age three [on a piano built by her father] in a quiet family atmosphere, and followed a strict schedule of eight hours of daily practice time on the piano outside of school hours.

Nancy: What was your music education and training when you were young?

Xian: I was taught privately by my parents, and later by professors at the Shenyang Conservatory of Music. I remember conducting my class once, singing something when I was seven—it’s a funny memory.

Nancy: Have you had any musical role models? 

Xian: All of my teachers have been role models in one way or another.

Nancy: Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges as a woman conductor?

Xian: There have been a few obstacles, but in general, I have had positive experiences.

Nancy: When you came to the United States for your doctoral studies, what was the most significant adjustment you had to make? 

Xian: I had to learn to speak loudly in a foreign tongue, and tell musicians what to do in a convincing way.

Nancy: Who is your favorite composer and why? 

Xian: My favorite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach, because his music is pure, natural and joyous—the best qualities of human nature.

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Photo Credit: Fred Stucker

Nancy: What other musical positions do you hold?

Xian: Besides my role with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, I have been Music Director of La Verdi Orchestra Sinfonica Milano (Milan Symphony “Verdi”) in Italy since 2009, Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in the United Kingdom beginning in 2016 and Artistic Director of The Netherlands Jungen Orkest (The Dutch Youth Orchestra) in the Netherlands since 2011—an appointment which will end soon.

Nancy: What are some of your goals for the NJSO?

Xian: I take great pride in becoming Music Director of the historic New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, which has been associated with a succession of respectable maestros.  In particular, I have enjoyed the flexibility and sensibility in the musicians’ playing and eagerness of wanting to sound good as a group, not for personal heroism.  I wish to raise the performance level even higher and give audiences throughout the state musical experiences of high impact and excitement.  I also wish to promote the NJSO’s role in community engagement and educational activities.

Nancy: What do you think the NJSO brings to the state of New Jersey? 

Xian: We are the musical messengers of the state.  We bring joy, hope, entertainment and emotional experiences to be shared with our audiences throughout this very diverse state.  It makes this orchestra different and special in the United States, where most orchestras play only in their home halls and rarely do run-out concerts to other communities.

Nancy: With this appointment, you will be moving your family to New Jersey.  What is your favorite thing so far about the Garden State? 

Xian: The nature:  the green landscapes, the seaside … We have been living in Italy for six years. Every summer we spend time in our home in the United States; my family loves it and never has enough of it, so they are all very excited about the move.

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Photo Credit: Fred Stucker

Nancy: If you had recommendations for music education in schools, what would you suggest?

Xian: I would recommend group activities—playing instruments and singing together—making classical music “cool” and interesting to kids.  With the NJSO, I’d love to give special attention to music education and involve even more children in our programs. Music education is one of the most important aspects of a professional orchestra. It is important to reach out to schools and to nurture the next generation.

Nancy: How much traveling do you do each year and what is your favorite place to visit?

Xian: I am on the road at least half of the year.  My favorite place on the planet is actually my home, where I never get to stay much.

Nancy: Do you have any hobbies or interests that audience members would be surprised to learn about you?

Xian: I like to read historical fiction.