Conductor Xian Zhang sees podium prospects improving for women

The classical-music world has seen a series of notable appointments of women conductors in recent years, including Nathalie Stutzmann as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Before this much-publicized round of hires, however, several other women had made ground-breaking advances, including Xian Zhang, appointed in 2016 as the first female music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, where her contract was recently extended through 2027-28. “We’re having a good run so far,” she said.

Next up for Zhang is leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts Oct 27-28 and Nov. 1 featuring Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 and pianist Simon Trpčeski as soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Zhang has worked with the Macedonian-born Trpčeski many times, including a tour of China, and she called him a “phenomenal pianist.”  

The CSO program will open with Primal Message by Nokuthula Ngwenyama, best known as a viola soloist but also for her second career as a composer. The piece, originally written for viola quintet, explores the notion of what a “primal message” to other potential inhabitants of the universe might sound like. Zhang was on the podium when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra debuted the augmented version for harp, percussion and strings in 2020, and she has gone on to champion the work elsewhere, including the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. “It’s very melodic,” she said. “The expression I would say is romantic, and it’s very lyrical. I find the string writing is very lush, very rich.”

In her native China, Zhang began piano lessons as a child with her mother and went on to study at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, playing the instrument for chorus and opera rehearsals. When she was 16, she switched to conducting and went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the school.  

At the time, she didn’t give much thought to being a female conductor, because three of the four students in her conducting class were female as well as two of her teachers, who had studied in Moscow. “For me, as a very young girl, I didn’t think much that this is very rare,” she said. “I was totally naïve, I saw that my teachers were doing it, and I would learn with them, I thought this was normal. Twenty years later, I looked around and I thought, ‘Am I the only one doing this?’ ”

Once she realized the hurdles that women conductors faced, she just vowed to persevere. “It’s better to just learn the craft and do what’s at hand and not spend too much time thinking about things you can’t change,” she said.

After she finished her master’s degree and was already teaching at the Central Conservatory, she met a choral conductor from the University of Michigan, who had a residency in China. He strongly encouraged her to come to the United States and pursue a doctoral degree in conducting, something that was not available at the time in China. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it for a year or two,’” Zhang said. “That’s how I came out. I would say it was 85 percent the encouragement by the professor, for which I’m very grateful.” 

“It’s better to just learn the craft and do what’s at hand and not spend too much time thinking about things you can’t change.” — Xian Zhang

Zhang pursued her doctoral studies at the respected University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, leading the school’s concert orchestra for four years. The turning point in her career came in 2002, when she shared first prize at the Maazel-Vilar Conductor’s Competition. Her win there led to an appointment as a cover conductor at the New York Philharmonic in 2002-04 and later as the NY Phil’s assistant and associate conductor. “Professionally speaking, that’s how the career was launched,” she said. “That was a shifting point for me.”

In 2009, Zhang became the first woman to be named music director of an Italian symphony orchestra, taking over as artistic head of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, a post she held through 2016. After serving for three years as principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, she was appointed to the same post with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2020. 

But her main post remains the New Jersey Symphony, where the orchestra has made strides in its stylistic versatility and over-all sound. At the same time, it has extended its reach through online performance videos. “After the pandemic started, we started to use this potential, and it has been really, very gratifying,” she said. The 2022-23 season marks the orchestra’s centennial, which it is celebrating in part with four commissions, including ones by Resident Artistic Catalyst Daniel Bernard Roumain and Chen Yi. 

Zhang professes to be a big fan of opera, noting that she made her conducting debut at age 20 in The Marriage of Figaro at the Chinese National Opera. She typically does only one or two productions a year, because each one requires two to three months for rehearsals and performances, time that is hard to carve out with all her other commitments. That said, she did lead a production of Tosca at the Cincinnati Opera in summer 2021, and she is scheduled to conduct La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in 2024.  

She is noncommittal about seeking a music directorship with a larger, more prominent orchestra. So much of it has to do with guest conducting and generating a rapport with an orchestra. “It’s unpredictable,” she said. “Sometimes you seem to be with the right orchestra at the right time and then appointments follow. It’s almost a path that you can’t really foresee.” 

Whatever happens in the future, her success has helped pave way for the spate of recent high-profile hirings for women conductors, a development she is excited about. “I think in the last five years, we have been hearing more news about these appointments of female conductors and that’s really encouraging,” she said. “I think times are changing, and the public now has a more open view.”