19 Mar 2019

Q&A with Xian Zhang


19 Mar


There’s a lovely story about your first steps in classical music in the children’s book Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Tell us about your first piano?

I started learning the piano when I was three. My father was an instrument maker – he made violins and cellos. I was born in the ’70s at the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when all of the Western instruments were burned. There were no pianos at that time and the instrument factories were closed. So my father built me a piano from spare parts.

What do you most enjoy about being a conductor?

A conductor becomes the embodiment of each piece. He or 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 work as well as the composer. That means long hours of detailed preparation for rehearsals and concerts. A thousand details go by in each measure. The musicians themselves are each tugging at that interpretation, listening to their fellows and not only participating in my 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, and that’s part of the amazing thing about doing live performances. There is this part that you cannot predict. Exciting!

We’re curious – how do you get the most out of performing concertos when you have limited rehearsal time with a soloist?

Both the soloist and I know our parts inside out before we start working together – and yet we may well have very different ideas as to how the piece should go. Once we start rehearsing together, chemistry somehow takes over and hopefully we will be able to offer the audience something very special. Every time I accompany the Brahms Violin Concerto, it is different!

Which upcoming concerts in our 2018/19 season would you recommend to people who enjoy this one?

What a tough question! Herbert Blomstedt is a wonderful conductor and he has programmed one of my favourite works – Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. If you enjoy Shostakovich 5 tonight, why not come back for Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting Shostakovich 10 and/or Stanislav Kochanovsky for Shostakovich 7? And of course I should recommend the concert on Friday 5 April with Wu Wei performing the Sheng, which is one of the oldest Chinese instruments. Actually, it is probably easier to ask which concerts I wouldn’t go to – the Philharmonia is working with so many wonderful artists!