A Woman Conductor on The Grant Park Podium? Yes, and A Most Talented One

July 11, 2010

The gifted Chinese-American conductor, Xian Zhang, made an impressive debut with the Grant Park Orchestra at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park

Professional opportunities for women conductors have increased dramatically over the last few decades, although barriers remain: Don't hold your breath for a female musician to take over any leading American orchestra anytime soon. Still, success stories such as that of Xian Zhang are encouraging. The gifted Chinese-American conductor made an impressive debut with the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

The 36-year-old Zhang is all over the international podium circuit these days, having begun her tenure as music director of Milan's Orchestra Sinfonica Giuseppe Verdi last season following a five-year stint as assistant and then associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic. So well-received was she with the musicians and audience at her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2009 that management re-engaged her for subscription concerts this December.

That this dynamo of the baton also has keen musical instincts and strong leadership skills was apparent throughout her weekend program.

It coupled two classics from the early 20th century, Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 and Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges" Suite, with a recent work by the Chinese composer Chen Yi, "Ge Xu" ("Antiphony"). All of this was apt music for the great urban outdoors. And the level of playing attested once again to how responsive this orchestra can be on only a pair of rehearsals, even to conductors with whom it has never worked before.

Chen is an expert at dressing Chinese folk music in Western orchestral attire. "Ge Xu" translates the antiphonal singing of mountain songs of a Chinese ethnic minority, the Zhuang, into a joyous, high-powered study in tumultuous rhythmic drive for full orchestra. Under the circumstances, audience members might have been fooled into believing that a wailing siren from nearby Michigan Avenue was part of the scoring.

With the "Three Oranges" Suite, Zhang was bringing home symphonic excerpts from an opera that had its world premiere in Chicago in 1921. Her conducting showed a firm grasp of the music's sarcastic harmonies, hard-edged orchestration and brittle, bustling energy. Solid brass contributions and vital string work were the result.

The Sibelius Second Symphony is a big Nordic party piece that has worn out some of its welcome by repetition. Even so, it generated a fair amount of excitement on Friday, with Zhang fully in command of its epic sweep, refusing to romanticize the music as if it were Finnish Tchaikovsky. Her whirring strings, stoic woodwinds and craggy brass proclamations were the real thing. A few times she failed to secure focused attacks, but mostly the orchestra answered her swooping gestures with playing at once tight, intense and full-throated.

The symphonic action at the Grant Park Music Festival will continue at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday when Hans Graf, music director of the Houston Symphony, returns to conduct a program of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

Jon von Rhein, Chicago Tribune