Meet the First Woman to Lead the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

Groundbreaking conductor Xian Zhang infuses the NJSO with fresh energy and bold ideas.

Xian Zhang
Xian Zhang, the music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, is the first woman to lead the group in its 98-year history. Photo courtesy of Cherylynn Tsushima

When Xian Zhang was four, her parents wanted her to learn the piano. There was one problem. Most privately owned pianos in China had been destroyed during that nation’s Cultural Revolution, a violent sociopolitical movement from 1966–1976 that denounced Western culture. To facilitate Zhang’s musical education, her father, a professional luthier and self-taught pianist and clarinetist, built her a piano. (Zhang’s mother had been attending a music-education university, but the revolution halted her studies.)

Four decades later, in 2015, Zhang was named music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. She is the first woman to hold that position in the NJSO’s 98-year history.

It was not the first time that Zhang had blazed a trail. In 2009, she was chosen to lead Italy’s Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, making her the first woman to helm an orchestra in Italy. In 2016, she also became principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She was the first woman conductor to hold a titled role with a BBC orchestra.

Now 46, Xian Zhang (pronounced shen jang) didn’t set out to be a pioneer. “I never thought about it,” she says. “If I had thought about it, I would have stopped or it would have slowed me down. [I] only let my training and music lead the way.”

Nothing seems to be slowing her down at the NJSO. Under Zhang, the orchestra has performed one mainstage world-premiere; two more are scheduled for next season. One of her major contributions to the orchestra is the Lunar New Year Celebration, a family-friendly night that blends Chinese culture with Western musical traditions. The inaugural performance in 2019 was the orchestra’s single highest-grossing classical concert for the season.

“Many of them [were] not our regular concertgoers,” says Zhang about the patrons who attended the celebration. “From that, we can grow.”

According to Ann Borowiec, co-chair of the NJSO’s board of trustees, “It’s a serious commitment to diversify our audience. She’s drawing attention in the tri-state area and beyond.”

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Although the NJSO is the resident orchestra at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, the group travels to five other venues in the Garden State.

“It’s a little bit challenging,” Zhang says about adapting to different spaces. “But the [musicians] can adjust so naturally. It’s a very fast-learning group.”

During a recent concert at NJPAC, the petite conductor (she’s about 5 feet tall) stood atop her podium on the Prudential Hall stage to lead the musicians through selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Zhang’s straight, jet-black hair glowed under the bright stage lights as she whipped her head around. Throwing her whole body into every movement, she gesticulated wildly, like a mad scientist. 

“She’s [a] vortex of all this energy,” says Kathleen Nester, an NJSO musician for more than 20 years. “It’s like she can embrace the entire orchestra.”

Zhang’s dynamic gestures guide the audience through the concert as well. 

“You’re the mediator,” Zhang says of a conductor’s role. “To the orchestra, you need to be professional, you need to be musically inspiring, precise, on top of the score and taking everything under control. At the same time, you have to be expressive and communicative to the audience. Even though they’re [to] your back, they sense your energy and your whole being.”

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The NJSO offers classical music concerts, free outdoor performances during the summer, educational programs for youth orchestras, family concerts and film screenings accompanied by the live orchestra. Annually, the organization serves more than 140,000 patrons. 

Throughout this season and the next, the NJSO will perform a series of concerts dubbed Beethoven’s Birthday Bash, in honor of the famed conductor’s 250th birthday. The party kicks off this month, from March 19–22. Over the course of four days, artist-in-residence and Canadian pianist Louis Lortie will play all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos under Zhang’s baton. [UPDATE: As of March 11, 2020, the NJSO has postponed its scheduled concerts from March 19–29. You can read more here.]

Zhang, the NJSO’s 14th music director, has performed and conducted internationally—and observed how audiences differ around the world.

In Europe, “the audience is very traditional, the programming tends to be more conventional,” she says. In Germany, “I never even dare to open [my] mouth on stage,” she says. “It feels almost like an arrogance if you talk about Beethoven. They have so much respect for the composer.”

American audiences, she says, call for more contemporary repertoire. “The atmosphere is a little more casual. Here, I talk quite a lot to the audience, introducing the piece. People seem to enjoy that.”

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Xian Zhang

With grand gestures, Xian Zhang enthusiastically leads the NJSO from her podium on NJPAC’s Prudential Hall stage. “She’s [a] vortex of all this energy,” says Kathleen Nester, an NJSO musician for more than 20 years. Photo courtesy of Cherylynn Tsushima

Zhang was born in Dandong, a small city in China across the Yalu River from North Korea. From the age of four until she was a preteen, she practiced the piano six to eight hours every day. She played before breakfast and immediately when she came home from school. (She later also learned the violin).

Today, Zhang lives in Short Hills with her husband and two sons, ages 7 and 11. Both children are learning piano and violin. 

“I’m too easy,” admits Zhang about enforcing a practice schedule on her children. “I know what I’ve been through. It’s hard for me to impose that on them.”

But she still expects a lot of the 66 professional musicians employed by the NJSO.

On a Wednesday morning in January, the musicians are preparing to rehearse The Ring Without Words, a condensed, 60-minute version of the Wagnerian opera cycle that includes the well-known “Ride of the Valkyries.”

At precisely 10 am, they get to work. 

“Make little phrases in it—dee dah dee dah,” Zhang sings as she moves her arms like a snake to demonstrate the desired effect.

Perched on a stool, she is more subdued in rehearsal than during a live performance, but she’s still enthusiastic and focused.

“Trumpets, trombones—that downbeat, don’t be late…Woodwinds, wait for me.”

The musicians play a few lines, then halt when Zhang raises her left hand like a stop sign.

Da dun dun da da—can you make the first note shorter? Everything lighter. It’s too heavy…Ahh, better!”

Nester, the assistant principal flutist and solo piccolo player for the orchestra, appreciates Zhang’s direction. 

“Whenever she has something to say, it’s exactly what is needed in that moment to make that particular passage or section clear or to work well,” she says.

* * *

When Zhang was 12, she was accepted into a music-focused school through the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She studied piano until she was told by her teacher that her hands were too small. 

“He wanted me to have big muscles, big hands and be so powerful—I obviously don’t have that,” says Zhang. What she did have were strong sight-reading skills, a good memory and perfect pitch.

Around the same time, a conducting teacher took Zhang under her wing. She had the young musician play piano accompaniment for her choir and taught Zhang the conducting ropes. 

“I felt much more anxious on the piano,” says Zhang. “Conducting, it’s mental and more about interaction with the musicians and giving necessary information. I’m not that immediately responsible for producing that sound. That’s actually a lot of pressure.”

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In 1998, Zhang came to the United States to earn her doctorate in conducting at the University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music. China does not offer doctoral programs for conducting, Zhang says. Although she had studied English since middle school and scored well on her English admittance test for the doctoral program, Zhang didn’t talk for her first three months in America. “It’s different when you really have to speak it on a daily basis,” she says. “To be able to feel comfortable, it takes time.”

In 2002, Zhang was the co-winner of the inaugural Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition, held in Carnegie Hall. Out of 362 contenders, 29-year-old Zhang and a male conductor from Bangkok shared the prize of $90,000 and the opportunity to be mentored by conductor Lorin Maazel, the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Zhang eventually became associate conductor with the New York Philharmonic before moving to Italy in 2009 to lead the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.

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By the time Zhang moved to New Jersey, she had already had a few opportunities to guest conduct the NJSO. “Each time really left a very good impression,” she says.

Her arrival at the NJSO had an immediate impact. Shortly after Zhang’s hiring, the NJSO also recruited Gabriel van Aalst as president and CEO. “She was one of the key reasons I came here,” he says. 

“To have a partner who has a clear vision, a passion, someone who is a charismatic leader, and most importantly, an incredible conductor who musicians respond to—those are the best tools that someone in my role can have,” says van Aalst, previously the chief executive of England’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. 

Board co-chair Borowiec also commends Zhang as a bold thinker. 

“She’s committed to change that’s good for the orchestra: new composers, new works, deeper connection with the community,” says Borowiec. 

Zhang’s approachability and dedication is what van Aalst calls the Xian effect. 

“[It’s] when a patron comes up to her and says, ‘Oh my god, you’re amazing, you’re wonderful.’ And Xian turns to them and says, ‘How’s your daughter? Last time I saw you 2 1/2 years ago, your daughter was visiting from San Diego’—or whatever the case is,” says van Aalst. “She has the most amazing memory. The authenticity of the relationship is so captivating. And in the same way that she brings energy to the stage, she brings that energy to every part of her life.”

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