At 11, she left home in Dandong, China to study music at an elite boarding school associated with the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. In 1992, at the age of 19, she found herself in the limelight when, at the last minute, her teacher asked her to lead a production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the China National Opera. Ms. Zhang calls the moment “my surprising debut” – as much a surprise to herself, it seems, as to the orchestra and audience. But success followed her over the next decade and, in 2005, New York Philharmonic Director Lorin Maazel appointed her Associate Conductor of the world-leading ensemble. If her destiny seemed prescribed before, at that point it became inescapable.
“I would have loved to be an architect,” she says. “But that would have been impossible because I left home at such a young age to pursue music.”
Yet being locked into her profession early seems to have only inflamed a passion for music that has guided her since childhood. Today, she maintains a demanding schedule of professional engagements that has her traveling between Europe and the US many times a year, along with regular return trips to China.
In 2016, Ms. Zhang took over as Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the first woman in the group’s 96-year history. She is also Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales and will lead the ensemble on an international tour of China in the 2018-19 season. And she still visits Italy to lead her old group, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.
She lives in New Jersey with her husband Lei Yang, a writer, and their two boys, balancing time between family, the NJSO and international engagements.
In concert, a conductor becomes the embodiment of each piece. She must be fully aware of every marking on the score, must know each individual part as well as the musicians themselves, and the whole as well as the composer. That means long hours of detailed preparation for rehearsals and concerts.
Musical interpretation is a delicate, complex affair, nuanced almost beyond belief. A thousand details go by in each measure. The conductor must always be conscious of the overall structure and thinking several bars ahead, to lead the musicians effectively toward a common goal. The musicians themselves are each tugging at that interpretation, listening to their fellows and participating in her vision but also fulfilling their own. The result is a living sound, a creation that yields surprises with each new performance.
“Every concert is different,” Ms. Zhang says. “That’s part of the amazing thing about doing live performances. There is this part that you cannot predict.”
How did you decide to become a conductor?
That was by accident, really. [Laughs] I was always a pianist. But at the conservatory, my piano teacher didn’t like the size of my hands. He thought I wouldn’t be able to develop the power that I needed. At the same time, I had a conducting teacher who was a lady, so I became a conducting major.
In my life, over and over I was somehow pushed to pursue this career. I guess that’s what you would call a “calling.” I didn’t feel that was something I was doing myself. It almost felt like something external or some higher force that was guiding me.
But it’s not so unusual. Many conductors I know were put into this position where we had to lead. Even the very famous conductors – von Karajan to Toscanini. Many people were pushed into this by accident. That’s your luck or your fortune that strikes and it just happens.
Is there a conductor who influenced your style?
I really, really love Carlos Kleiber, the German conductor. Studying and just starting out, watching him was like watching a god. There’s a video of him doing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 that was really inspiring. Every time I watch it, still, I realize new things that he’s doing that are fantastic. It’s unbelievable, the level of artistry.
What do you think separates a good conductor from a great one?
The conductor is the architect of the world of the piece, whatever piece it is. The conductor needs to shape it. To plan and design it with the things that you can learn or imagine from looking at the score. Especially when it’s a new piece, a premiere, it’s like building something almost out of thin air. We build it out of the pages of the score.
A great conductor would make the piece speak and allow the orchestra to understand all the little details easily. A great conductor would be able to inspire the audience, inspire and influence the players, in rehearsals as well as concerts.