Xian Zhang by Christopher Morley

Xian Zhang was relaxing during an early-summer break in the Pennsylvania mountains with her husband, their two young boys and an au pair when I caught up with her; in fact I could hear one of the lads bouncing around as we chatted during our transatlantic conversation.
The Chinese conductor comes to Symphony Hall on October 13, when she directs the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the opening concert of the new season at THSH, with a programme including songs by Richard Strauss (Egyptian soprano Fatma Said the soloist) and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, written at a time when the composer was fighting not only for his artistic life, but also against the risk of "disappearance".
I have talked to various conductors based in Communist countries who have been careful to surmise that Shostakovich's works are in fact non-political, but Xian Zhang has no qualms in declaring that  "he had to be political. His true intention was not to be political, as he was retiring in his private life, and he wanted to preserve his private life".
How does someone born into an entirely different culture come to assimilate one from another part of the world, I ask Xian? She tells me how she came to be immersed in western music.
"I was fortunate enough to have access to a piano when I was three! I played simple Bach pieces, such as the Anna Magdalena Notebook, and the piano really grew to be part of me. And then the western psyche became very natural."
And then the desire to become a conductor took over. "From my piano-playing I fell in love with the music of Debussy and Rachmaninov, for example, and this decided my preferences to explore the orchestral music of the Russian and French repertoire. But then there's the German repertoire too, all the way back to Bach and all the way up to Mahler!".
I ask the question I have always been reluctant to put forward, the one about what was until recently the glass ceiling for women conductors. Readers will know that I never refer to the fact, for example, that Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is a woman, just as much in the same way that I would never need to mention that Andris Nelsons, her predecessor at the CBSO, is a man. But given the cultural collision of two worlds, here I blurt it out, and Xian Zhang's answer is illuminating.
"Two of my five teachers in China were in fact women! The picture is changing quite quickly, and in the next ten years it will change even more.
"You have to conduct so often, that eventually you are able to prove that you are good at it. And the more often this question is asked, the time will come when we won't have to ask it! But at the moment it's still an issue."
We conclude by discussing Xian Zhang's role-models as conductors.
"When I was very young I was a big fan of Carlos Kleiber," she declares. "To me he was God!
"But then there's also Riccardo Muti, and Lorin Maazel, with whom I worked at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
"But I learn even from kids, every day. You never stop learning!".
*Xian Zhang conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Strauss and Shostakovich at Symphony Hall on October 13 (7.30pm).
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