In an exclusive interview today, Wednesday, April 29, the ebullient conductor Xian Zhang spoke with zoomdune.com about her four-concert series leading New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, which begins at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, April 30, in Newark’s Prudential Hall. The program features a concerto by Brahms, a Strauss serenade and a Mozart symphony. Among music topics, her visit is generating lots of buzz.
The works in question span an entire century: Johannes Brahms’ “Concerto for Violin and Cello,” Op. 102 (1887); Richard Strauss’ “Serenade for Winds in E-Flat Major,” Op. 7 (1881); and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major,” K. 543 (1788). A chance for local talent to shine, the Brahms “Double Concerto” will feature as soloists NJSO’s own Concertmaster Eric Wyrick on violin and Principal Cello Jonathan Spitz. Thirteen members of the orchestra’s wind section will perform the Strauss serenade.
For a glimpse of the maestra in a capsule, Ivan Hewett, in his Sept. 5, 2013, article for The Telegraph of London, “The Chinese woman conductor set to storm the Proms,” provides a fascinating account of Xian Zhang’s musical trajectory from a last-minute debut on Beijing conservatory’s podium at age 20, through her further studies with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and subsequent esteemed association with the New York Philharmonic, and on to her present musical directorship of Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.
With perfect English, a rich vocabulary and a ready laugh, Xian Zhang provides insight into the concert program, cuing readers to specific moments that deeply move her.
For the sake of newcomers to orchestral concerts, would you explain how your week as a guest conductor is structured? “Usually we have two and a half days of rehearsals and three days of concerts, but this week is unusual. We have four concerts and two full days for rehearsals, lasting about four and a half hours each.”
Why do you think the Brahms “Double Concerto” had such a cool reception at its 1887 premiere? “It’s a bit subdued, introverted in a way, but it has a lot of depth. The attitude toward this work has really warmed throughout the years. Brahms originally wanted to write a second double concerto, but he decided not to when the initial reception of this one was so cool.” Ah, what might have been.
What pearls, or hidden gems, of the “Double Concerto” do you treasure? “The end of the Double Concerto’s second movement is the most touching moment of the whole work. The cello solo has a beautiful line. The strings accompanying him. The harmony change. It’s really paradise.”
What about the other works? “The gem for the Strauss serenade comes right in the middle of the piece, in the recap, when the horn repeats the main theme. This is a beautiful moment of harmony and tranquility. For most people, the favorite part of Mozart’s ‘Symphony No. 39’ is the third movement, which is a lively minuet. The trio section has a wonderful clarinet solo. That’s a folk song! Of the whole piece, people seem to be able to remember that particular moment.”
Xian Zhang’s infectious laugh repeatedly came into play during the next question’s setup. Laurie Shulman’s concert “Program Notes” list a 25-minute duration for the Mozart symphony. (That’s not the funny part.) Dozens of YouTube recordings of the work range from 23 minutes, 11 seconds, to 34 minutes, 52 seconds—fully ten minutes longer. (There. That was the funny part.) Why such a difference?
“Our performance may run a little longer than 25 minutes because I take most of the repeats, which I think are most important for the structure. Some conductors don’t take the repeats in the last movement, so that could account for shorter performance times. Conductors of performances that last ten minutes longer probably take the second movement—marked ‘Andante con moto’ (at a swift walking pace)—much, much slower. I approach the second movement as an aria, which means ‘to be sung.’ A singer could not go on and on forever, or he would run out of breath.”
The savvy music director’s past performance record and her passion for these works portend a breathless audience by concert’s end, not due to its duration, but because of the excitement Xian Zhang is sure to spark.
Xian Zhang conducts NJSO in Brahms, Strauss and Mozart
Starting Thursday, April 30, 1:30 p.m.
1 Center Street
Newark, NJ 07102
Check www.njsymphony.org for other venues and performance times
1.800.ALLEGRO (255.3476); 973.624.3713
Featuring NJSO Concertmaster and violinist Eric Wyrick and Principal Cello Jonathan Spitz