Xian Zhang

Sibelius: Symphony No. 2

Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang will take the podium for a program featuring the great Finnish composer's heroic symphony, the Orchestral Suite from Prokofiev's opera The Love for Three Oranges, and Antiphony, a recent work by Chinese composer Chen-Yi.

Who

Grant Park Orchestra
Xian Zhang, Conductor

What

Chen-Yi: Ge Xu (Antiphony)   
Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges: Symphonic Suite
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2

Program Notes PDF

Conductor Xian Zhang joins the Grant Park Music Festival to conduct pieces by Sibelius, Prokofiev and Chen Yi. Xian serves as Music Director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi and served as the New York Philharmonic's Associate Conductor. Below is a short conversation from July 2010 about her upcoming concerts in Millennium Park.

What were your first encounters with music as a child?

I grew up in Dondong, in northern China (Manchuria) and my father made instruments so there was always music. I started to learn to play piano when I was three years old. I was so short, so tiny that I couldn't reach the keyboard for a while so I had to sit on my mother's lap. My parents were very determined to have me learn music. Conducting really came to me as a surprise. I was aiming to be a concert pianist but my teacher helped me realize that my hands were too small to really succeed, so I turned to conducting when I was sixteen. I went to the conservatory in Beijing. I was a very shy person initially but as a conductor, I had to overcome that right away. Over the years I've become quite comfortable interacting with the large group of people that make up an orchestra. You really have to be confident as a musician, confident in your musical knowledge to gain the trust of an orchestra.

This is your first time performing in Millennium Park and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. What's your impression of the venue?

It's truly amazing. I actually had dinner with Frank Gehry in Los Angelos last year shortly after I learned that I'd be conducting here and we talked about the pavilion. I've conducted in several of Gehry's other theaters: the Disney concert hall in LA, at Bard College, and this space is as amazing as anything he's created, both acoustically and visually. Seeing the kids who come to concerts here, especially on the lawn, I get a sense of how the future of music is being built. It's wonderful that it draws people who don't usually come to classical music. It's very special.

Can you tell us a bit about the piece being performed this weekend by Chen Yi, entitled Antiphony (or Ge Xu, its original Chinese title)?

This piece is based on some fascinating folk music from southwestern China, the province of Yunan, which borders Vietnam and Thailand. It's a region with many different minority groups and this particular group, whose music the piece is inspired by, loves dancing and has a wide range of unique musical instruments, especially wind instruments. In fact in this piece, near the end, you'll hear the bassoon, which Chen Yi chose because it's close in sound to a traditional Chinese instrument called 'sheng' which is a big reed instrument with lots of pipes, quite close in some ways to a bassoon. The title of the piece, Ge Xu, literally means 'song' and 'ruins' (the official English title Antiphony is quite different) and it implies the ruins of old folk songs, the remnants. It has a fascinating antique flavor to it.

Can you tell us a bit about your work in Milan with the Orchestra Sinfonica Giuseppe Verdi?

It's fascinating group. It was founded just over a dozen years ago by Riccardo Chailly as something of a young orchestra with most of the players in their 20s or 30s, but over the past decade the orchestra has begun to mature. We have quite an active schedule, with three concerts a week during the regular season and then we also serve as the resident orchestra of the Spoleto Festival. We're the only symphonic orchestra in Milan. La Scala of course does some philharmonic programs, but not that often. We have our own hall, the Auditorium di Milano, which is a lovely, fairly new venue with very nice sound, which is sometimes difficult to find in Italy, since many of the older theaters have a somewhat dry sound. If you're ever in Milan, come hear us!

Apart from music, what are your other interests?

Well on one level, as a conductor, your brain never quite stops thinking about music. However, after spending so much time on the podium, in front of so many people, one of my great pleasures is to be able to merge back in the with crowd and savor being an ordinary person again. For me, I love just being able to walk around cities. Also, I just recently had a son (he's 1 years old). Of course the traveling life of a conductor means we're apart quite a bit, which is very hard. But he's an incredible joy. This isn't my first time in Chicago [Xian Zhang has conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra] but I've only always been here in the winter, so I'm really enjoying the beautiful weather. Tonight, on my night off before the concerts, I'm going to explore the Art Institute! The life of a conductor can be a bit lonely, but exploring, walking around cities of the world is a great pleasure.

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