Xian Zhang Sharp with Buoyant Music

July 10, 2010

The dynamic young Chinese conductor Xian Zhang on the podium meant that things moved quickly and with precision and excitement as well...Second Symphony of Sibelius, was perhaps pushed too briskly, but still served as a showcase for the excellence of the Grant Park Orchestra including the extended parts for strings, horns, brass, and percussion.

It's been a busy week at the Grant Park Music Festival.

Tuesday and Thursday nights brought a very successful indoor chorus-only program of French music. Wednesday night held a complex program of classical compositions from Latin America along with an extensive theatrical narration and a mid-performance rainstorm.

Friday evening, though, was more of what people both hope for and expect when they visit the immensely popular downtown free festival: a beautiful night with a jaunty program of attractive pieces both known and unknown. The dynamic young Chinese conductor Xian Zhang on the podium meant that things moved quickly and with precision and excitement as well.

Zhang, who turns 37 this year, was trained in China by a teacher, also a woman, who had herself studied with a woman conducting-teacher -- an unusual resume in this male-dominated profession. After five years as assistant and associate conductor with the New York Philharmonic, Zhang, a small spitfire who wears sharp all-black suits, just completed her first season as music director of the Verdi Symphonic Orchestra in Milan. There must be stories there, as women and Asians are extremely rare in leadership positions in Italy.

You could see, as in her other Chicago appearances, why many musicians enjoy working with her. She moves a great deal, but her motions are clear and tied to the score. She is deeply focused and also clearly loves what she does.

Zhang likes to open her concerts with a rare contemporary or modern piece. Here it was the 1993-94 eight-minute Ge Xu (Antiphony) by another Chinese woman based in the U.S., the Canton native Chen Yi, 20 years Zhang's senior, whose career was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Based in Kansas City where she is also a popular professor at University of Missouri Conservatory of Music, Chen's music is rooted in Chinese and modern American traditions and is almost always catchy and attractive. Ge Xu is inspired by festival music of the minority Zhuang people in southern China and matched its festive purpose.

Prokofiev’s 1919 suite from his opera The Love for Three Oranges, which had its world première in Chicago in 1921, is always a good time with the “March” section later adopted for the theme to both the radio and television versions of The FBI. (The number of people who recall this seems to be diminishing with time.) The much-loved D Major Second Symphony of Sibelius (1900-2), was perhaps pushed too briskly, but still served as a showcase for the excellence of the Grant Park Orchestra including the extended parts for strings, horns, brass, and percussion.

Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times