A conductor becomes a virtual-concert jet-setter

By Steve Smith

On a recent afternoon at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center here, a scaled-down contingent of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra played its first concert program since March.

The premiere of “i am a white person who _____ Black people,” a brooding contemplation for strings and percussion by Daniel Bernard Roumain, gave way to the serene Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a buoyant Mozart divertimento and “Delights & Dances,” a frolicsome modern concerto grosso by Michael Abels, showcasing four young Black and Latino string players.

An audience almost entirely restricted to symphony employees, stagehands, camera operators and Roumain responded with enthusiastic applause, though the sound barely registered in an almost empty theater. But the sheer joy the musicians felt in performing together again was palpable, with Xian Zhang, the orchestra’s music director since 2016, molding the program’s disparate moods from the podium with precision and oversize energy.

“I’m glad you came out on Thursday, because on Monday, it didn’t sound like that,” Zhang, 47, confided a few days later, speaking in a video call from her home in Short Hills, New Jersey. “It was nobody’s fault, just social distancing. It felt much draggier, much heavier.”

At a rehearsal Monday, the ensemble’s first real-world gathering since March, she explained, it took some time for the players to grow accustomed to sitting at an unusual distance from one another. By Thursday, happily, the orchestra’s sheen had been restored.

Thursday’s performance, along with another program Friday, were being recorded as the initial offerings in a six-concert virtual orchestral season that begins Nov. 19, part of a broader online initiative the New Jersey Symphony is pursuing in lieu of in-person engagements for as long as coronavirus prohibitions remain in place. Such broadcasts have helped orchestras maintain ties to their audiences during a season rife with restrictions and threatened livelihoods.

Like everyone in the classical music world, Zhang has had to contend with postponed bookings, including high-profile engagements with the Santa Fe Opera and the Chicago and Cincinnati symphonies. But lately, through a combination of her rising profile and serendipities of location and timing, she has become something of a virtual-concert jet-setter. In late September, Zhang conducted the Seattle Symphony in a livestream from an empty Benaroya Hall. Just over a week later, she made her debut with the Houston Symphony in front of 200 or so in Jones Hall and a digital audience.

Flying has not been onerous, Zhang said, but travel restrictions have necessitated precise calculation. Because Texas was on an advisory list, Zhang conducted the last concert of her Houston engagement on a Sunday afternoon, and then flew out that night — “just in time to begin my 14-day self-quarantine, so that I could start rehearsing with New Jersey,” she said. “Things like that, you really have to plan.”

This week, Zhang will undertake an especially fortuitous assignment with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, filling in at short notice for a conductor who was prevented from traveling. One concert there, on Thursday, features a new orchestral arrangement of “Primal Message,” originally a string quintet by the violist and composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama. Friday’s program includes the world premiere of “For Marcos Balter,” a piece for violin and orchestra by Tyshawn Sorey, featuring the dynamic violinist Jennifer Koh. That work, co-commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony, was originally intended to have been introduced in Newark, Sorey’s hometown.

All of these engagements have helped burnish Zhang’s already estimable reputation. Born in Dandong, China, near the North Korean border, and trained at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, she initially pursued a career as a pianist until a mentor deputized her to conduct a performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at the age of 20. She came to stateside attention when she shared first prize in the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition. She became an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic in 2004, and was appointed associate conductor there a year later.

Working across the river from her old stamping grounds has presented both challenges and opportunities. “The advantage is for the NJSO to consistently have top-level musicians to play in our orchestra and a talent pool of soloists and artists of the highest caliber to work here,” she explained in an email.

Proximity to New York City, the country’s high-culture capital, can also mean a struggle for attention that goes more easily to the Philharmonic or Carnegie Hall. But, Zhang said, the New Jersey Symphony has set itself apart by championing composers native to or based in the state, like Sorey, Paquito D’Rivera and Sarah Kirkland Snider, and by its commitment to reflecting New Jersey’s diversity onstage and in its programming. Zhang is quick to point out that the orchestra was the first major American ensemble to engage a Black music director, Henry Lewis, who served from 1968 to 1976.

The programs Zhang has led around the world over the last three seasons leaned heavily on standards. This, she said, was “a good thing for a conductor of my status and age: You want to be asked to start with standard repertoire, because it means you have some status in the zone.”

But in this unprecedented season, she has showcased works by composers of color and women, a more accurate representation of her pursuits in New Jersey, where she aspires to raise the amount of music played by composers of color from 15% per season to as much as 30%.

Zhang opened her Seattle concert with “Mother and Child,” a movement from William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano adapted by the composer for string orchestra. For her Houston program, booked long before the pandemic and then altered to suit restrictions, she retained her intended opener: “Within Her Arms” by Anna Clyne. That the Detroit concerts already featured pieces by Ngwenyama and Sorey suited her mission ideally.

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