"Her incisive gestures elicit vivid performances from musicians who have seen it all," wrote a New York Times critic during her tenure as the New York Philharmonic's associate conductor.
"If you know the score well and make decisions based on what's written, then the individuality of the orchestra should come through. I really do not think of making the music different or styled in a way. That's too much ego," said Zhang, in her third season as music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.
But ours is a visual age, and the visuals on Zhang mark her as a type seen rarely, if ever. Just over 5 feet tall, admitting only to being not quite 40, she embodies two characteristics that run counter to the accepted authoritarian image in Western classical music: She is Chinese and female, and yet she is doing the standard grand tour of high-level conducting up-and-comers with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and others.
"Very, very occasionally, something unpleasant happens, and with a person like me, it's very hard to find out exactly the reason," Zhang said. "In America there is the matter of race, age, your sex, your background, everything. It's complex. I am a mixture of all the minority qualities, so it's hard to pinpoint the reason. It's a waste of time to try to figure that out, and I instead do what I can do and what I like to do."
She likes to work hard, she says — a quality shared more enthusiastically by her colleagues in Italy than in America.
"It's very different from America here," she said in a call last week from Milan. "In Italy people seem to have a higher level of respect for authority and for conductors. Also, orchestras, they in a way wish the conductor will work them, rather than feeling too much push. They actually welcome it, they expect it from rehearsals and making music."
In Philadelphia — where Zhang will be making both her Philadelphia Orchestra and Mann debuts — she says she will have perhaps 5½ hours of rehearsal for two major works. "It's not very much," she says, brimming with questions of her own for the reporter about how big the Mann is and why the Philadelphia Orchestra is struggling for audiences.
"In America, orchestras have to be so careful about planning, the choice of pieces. It's very difficult. Not as much in China. I was just back there for a tour in April, and the orchestras are thriving. The China Philharmonic is 100 percent sponsored by the government. They don't even have to sell tickets, they give tickets as gifts. It's unbelievable. In Milan, our Ministry of Culture gave our orchestra a gift of 5 million euros. In Scandinavia, government covers 80 percent of an orchestra's operating budget. That takes the pressure away. You just focus on the music."
Though Zhang spends a lot of time guest-conducting in Europe — generally leaving her husband, a novelist, at home with their 3-year-old son — she is familiar with the workings of the American system. She took up piano at age 3, but in her teens decided she wasn't big or muscular enough to become a pianist. She started studying conducting, and after earning degrees at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, she came to the United States for doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
After becoming a winner in the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors' Competition, she was engaged by the New York Philharmonic, which led to guest-conducting stints all over. At that time, she established a base in Yardley, and still owns a house there.
She points out that becoming a conductor was not an early goal.
"I didn't consciously choose it. In a way I was led on to doing it, and it kept snowballing. Then it was about two years after I started conducting that I realized I should be considering it as a profession.
“In conservatory, it changed when I was 16 or 17. I met a conducting teacher," another female conductor, Wu Lingfen, "and she taught me in a very natural way. It was a lot about reading scores on the piano and a lot about score reading. Compared to practicing 10 hours a day on the piano, this is what I am better at. I needed big hands and big muscles as a pianist, but in this I can use more of my brain and my ears."
As Wu was an inspiration to her, Zhang hopes her career will be a signal to other women that the podium is open to them.
"It's somehow very intimidating, this profession. To have such authority and in a public figure, they have some kind of fear, like it's unapproachable. Really, when you get to do it as a profession, it's mainly about music and interaction with musicians, traveling and learning the repertoire. But just looking from the outside, it's scary. It's too exposed. People see your every move."
Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611, firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch.