“Women can’t conduct Brahms, and Mahler is men’s music.” If anyone stands as a visible refutation of this statement by Helen Thompson, manager of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s, it is a 35-year-old Chinese woman named Xian Zhang. Extremely youthful for a conductor, she has earned plaudits as associate conductor at Thompson’s old orchestra (and as holder of the Arturo Toscanini Chair, no less). Last year, she became the first woman ever to lead the Dresden Staatskapelle, whose past chief conductors include Richard Wagner, Karl Böhm and Bernard Haitink, in its main hall.
How has this young Asian woman come close to scaling the barriers that have kept this profession the preserve of men, and mostly older men, for so long? In many ways, Zhang is a product of the west, her steady ascent of the podiums of Europe and North America the direct result of a traditional, if rather cosmopolitan, apprenticeship. Having caught the eye of the maestro Lorin Maazel in 2002 at the inaugural Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition (where she shared the top prize), Zhang was invited to become Maazel’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic. There she quickly distinguished herself in tasks that her mentor disliked – young people’s and outdoor concerts, newly commissioned works – while disarming players and audiences alike with what the New York Times has described as her “passionate musicality” and “down-to-earth” demeanour.
Yet Zhang is also a product of China, and it is precisely that combination of influences which has made her a progressive presence in a field that often fetishises the past. “Having an unusual background means you view tradition in a totally different way,” says Zhang, now in seclusion at her Pennsylvania home, awaiting the birth of her first child.
Born in Dandong, a border town from where she “could see North Korea across the river”, Zhang grew up with musical parents. Her father, a self-taught instrument builder, presented his daughter with a piano assembled from factory parts when she was four. “The local TV station made a documentary about it,” she recalls. “I was the only kid with a real piano at home who was actually trying to play it.”
At the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, whose school she attended from the age of 11, she was steered away from the piano by a teacher who insisted her hands were too small, but moved towards conducting instead. Despite the recent fuss in Europe over her gender, in Communist China, where Mao once proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky”, it simply wasn’t an issue.
“I was the third generation of female conductors in China,” says Zhang, who made her professional debut at the Beijing Opera at the invitation of another female conductor, Wu Lingfen. After stints on the faculties of the Beijing and Cincinnati conservatories, Zhang took the step that turned her from an unknown assistant professor into a sensational rising star on the international scene. Used to studying a single symphony for a month at a time, she was suddenly forced to prepare for the Maazel/Vilar Competition by cramming much of the entire western orchestral repertoire into nine months. The strategy paid off, not only in the competition, but also in dealing with the offers that poured in afterwards.
She has now performed with many of the world’s top orchestras and is booked to conduct others, including the Vienna and Chicago Symphonies and the Royal Concertgebouw in the Netherlands; she also makes regular appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra. Already, as one US critic put it, she has created “many a crack in the glass ceiling of the conducting world”.
Despite attempts to discern national traits in her conducting – the Los Angeles Times has compared her gestural clarity to Chinese calligraphy – Zhang sets little store by such ideas. Where she admits her background has made a difference is in her view of art and its relationship to society. “Money should never be the central concern for artists personally,” she says. “You can get all the beats. But to achieve the highest level, you need discipline, devotion and constant self-criticism. You can achieve it even in a bad economy where you get to conduct only five concerts a year.”
She could also have said that her example shows that you can reach the heights of a profession rooted in western tradition and still bound by its old formalities, even if you are young, from the east, and a woman.
Ken Smith is Asian performing arts critic for the Financial Times and North America correspondent for Gramophone magazine