Xian Zhang, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s new artistic chief, confronts the usual conundrums when a family must move because a parent takes on a new job: Find a new place to live, perhaps settling for something less than ideal, but good enough. Find out about access to the nearest airport. Learn about schools for two young sons and time the move so they are in sync with their fellow students. Locate music teachers for the children. Let grandparents come to help with the transition, if they are available.
But this is no ordinary move. Zhang and her family relocated in August from Milan, Italy — where, since 2009, she has been the music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi — to Short Hills, New Jersey. She maintains this position, in addition to leading the NJSO.
Zhang’s husband, Yang Lei, has moved with the family. Trained as a materials engineer with a specialty in ceramics, his current interest is financial advising. “Someone has to be not a musician,” Zhang says in an interview from her home, and points out, “His professional interests give me the flexibility to travel.”
The principal language of Zhang’s sons, Edan, seven, and Ricardo, four, is Italian. “I talk to them in Mandarin,” Zhang says, “and they answer in Italian.”
In order to help Zhang’s family relocate, her parents have come for a year from Dandong, China, where Zhang grew up, near the border with North Korea. Her pianist mother has agreed to give lessons to Edan and to a neighbor’s child.
Both of Zhang’s parents are pianists. Her father also plays the clarinet and violin and used to be a violin maker. Since neither of them learned to play a Chinese instrument, their musical activity was stymied during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China during the 1970s, when urban sophisticates were sent to the countryside. While Zhang says she was exposed to Chinese music history and folk music in school, her musical training began with piano studies with her mother on an instrument built by her father.
In the weeks after moving to the U.S., Zhang tucked in a stint in the United Kingdom, where she begins a three-year appointment as principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales (NOW). She makes her first official appearance at the NJSO in a batch of concerts running from Thursday to Sunday, October 27 to 30. The NJSO performs in Princeton Friday, October 28, and in New Brunswick, October 29.
The all-Tchaikovsky program consists of his polonaise from the opera “Eugene Onegin,” Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Simon Trpceski, and Symphony No. 5. Readings from the works of Alexander Pushkin, Tchaikovsky’s favorite poet, follow the New Brunswick performance.
Her second appearance occurs a week later. It features chamber music by Franz-Josef Haydn for piano trio, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for the same instruments. Soloists are guest pianist Pedja Muzijevic, piano, and NJSO first-chair players Eric Wyrick, violin, and Jonathan Spitz, cello. Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 and Richard Strauss’s Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier” complete the program. Performances take place in Englewood and Newark.
Tchaikovsky looms large on Zhang’s musical map. Guest conducting the NJSO in April, after her selection as musical director, Zhang led a program where two out of three pieces were by the Russian composer.
Why so much Tchaikovsky? I ask. “He’s very emotional, and music comes from emotions,” Zhang says. “He communicates very well with listeners,” she adds. “Besides, no one can have too much sugar in life. For all of that, I love his music.”
Zhang got to know Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music well when her Milan orchestra programmed a Tchaikovsky cycle. “I learned a lot about (the composer), especially his tone poems,” she says. “‘Romeo and Juliet’ is his best known tone poem. I’ll be doing his ‘Francesca da Rimini’ soon with the NJSO.”
“There’s a lot of Tchaikovsky orchestral repertoire that we don’t play,” Zhang says. “His first, second, and third symphonies are not often programmed in America. Neither is his ‘Manfred Symphony.’” Tchaikovsky wrote the unfinished “Manfred Symphony” between his fourth and fifth symphonies.
“Tchaikovsky gives the modern orchestra something to play,” the practical Zhang says. “Tchaikovsky’s orchestral writing calls for an orchestra the size of a modern orchestra. It requires a bigger orchestra than Beethoven. If you have the trombones sitting there you might as well use them.”
Zhang has observed that the sound of Tchaikovsky varies from one orchestra to another. “Some orchestras are used to a Russian type of string playing, which calls for phrases with long melodic lines that require a very legato way of playing. Some orchestras are not used to this, but the NJSO is very familiar with the style because of Jacques Lacombe [Zhang’s predecessor]. An orchestra is like an army. If half of the orchestra has played Tchaikovsky 20 times, there’s a deposit, and the experience is there. Some orchestras have very little experience with Tchaikovsky, and I have to work hard at rehearsal to catch them up.”
Despite her enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky, Zhang plans to have the NJSO emphasize Beethoven for the next two years. “Beethoven makes orchestras sound better,” she says. “Beethoven trains you and makes you more disciplined. It’s almost like going to the gym. He goes back to the most fundamental things in ensemble and music making.”
“There are always new discoveries in Beethoven and other classical composers,” Zhang says. “I often make myself read a brand new score for a familiar piece that I have performed many times. In this way, I am able to view it with a fresh eye. I’m often surprised to discover many new things in a new score — things that I had never noticed in an old score. I can get by with old markings, but I don’t depend on them because they can trap you and prevent you from thinking.”
Still, if Zhang were stranded on a desert island and could take only the works of one composer with her, she would choose Johann Sebastian Bach, a composer whom she has known since childhood. “The NJSO will be doing some Bach in the next two years,” she says, “but we have to create a balance.” Zhang’s balance considers the needs of listeners, the use of the orchestra, and the range of the repertoire.
“Since we only give 14 programs a year, I want each program to have a high impact on listeners. I want them to feel that they loved the pieces programmed, and to say ‘I have to come back and hear more.’ I like to choose pieces that were not done recently.”
As for the orchestra, Zhang says, “I want to use the NJSO orchestra fully, and the Bach orchestra is not as big as we are.”
When it comes to repertoire, Zhang seeks a balance between old and new composers. “We have to insure that listeners have a great time listening, and, at the same time, to remember that an orchestra is an art institution in modern times,” she says. “We have to help contemporary composers.” Zhang conducts Tan Dun’s “Internet Symphony ‘Eroica’” for a set of programs in April. Sponsored by Google and YouTube, and first performed by musicians from 70 countries who made up the first YouTube orchestra, the piece quotes Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony.
“All NJSO musicians have other jobs,” Zhang says. “It’s great that the orchestra doesn’t play every single day. When we’re together, we really enjoy it and make the most of things.”
“Our average rehearsal time for a concert is nine hours over two days. We can afford to do this because our musicians are at so high a level. Our rehearsals are much shorter than those in Europe. When Europeans look at this, they get scared.”
In rehearsal Zhang models her tactics after Lorin Maazel, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, where she held a succession of positions for half a dozen years beginning in 2002. “My mind constantly processes, even while I’m conducting,” she says. “You have to stay sharp and really focus. Then you have to communicate very clearly. I’m sure this applies to any sort of leadership. Maazel planned rehearsal time by seconds because he had such a clear conception of how to improve a performance. It was not just a matter of repeating.”
Zhang’s conducting career began in opera. At age 20 in 1993 she led Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” in Beijing’s Central Opera House. “From a musical point of view there should be no difference between conducting opera and symphonic conducting,” she says, “But different skills are required. In opera a conductor must follow the singers, and be conscious of everything: when the curtain rises, when the lights come up, the location of the chorus, and how to work with the scenery. One has to organize it all together while keeping the music flowing. Preparing an opera takes more time than preparing a symphony concert. Symphonic conducting is more condensed and concentrated. I actually like both.”
Zhang came to the United States at age 25 in 1998 for a doctoral program at Cincinnati College’s Conservatory of Music. “There were no performance degrees beyond a master’s degree in China,” she says. “Doctorates existed only for composing and musicology.”
With her active roles in three orchestras on two continents, Zhang has scarce unscheduled time. Yet on a recent Sunday in New Jersey, when she had no scheduled duties with the NJSO, Zhang attended a New Brunswick concert in order to experience the sound at the State Theater. “It was a case study,” she says. “The musicians love the State Theater and Richardson Auditorium in Princeton because they can hear each other well while performing. I find it very useful to listen when I’m not conducting. When you give concerts in as many different places as the NJSO does (the orchestra appears at six different venues) your memory of the sound becomes blurry. This was my research.”
Asked earlier what she does with her spare time, Zhang had said that she likes to spend it with her family. “I like to do anything very simple because I work so much and travel so much. I’m happy just to take a child to school.”
Zhang leans toward democracy in family life. “I think that my children are musical,” she says, “But I won’t force them. They should do what they really want to do.” Perhaps this point of view comes from the narrow escape that she had when she was growing up. “I was lucky,” she says “in that what my parents wanted me to do and trained me for was what I wanted to do.”
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Xian Zhang debuts as music director. Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University, Friday, October 28, 8 p.m. State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, Saturday, October 29, 8 p.m. Tickets start at $20. 800-255-3476 or www.njsymphony.org.