Zhang, Koh join Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 28, 2015 | 0 Comments In the Star-Advertiser Friday Print Edition
Zhang (Courtesy  Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra)

Conductor Xian Zhang (Courtesy
Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra)

BY STEVEN MARK / smark@staradvertiser.com

In the classical music world, legendary careers are built on legendary moments: Van Cliburn breaking down the Iron Curtain, winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, the midst of the Cold War. A teenage Midori breaks strings on two violins during a 1986 concert at Tanglewood, takes up a third, and blows away the audience, the orchestra and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra

Featuring Jennifer Koh, guest soloist and Xian Zhang, guest conductor

» Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
» When: 4 p.m. Sunday
» Cost: $32-$90 (discounts available)
Info: (866) 448-7849, http://ticketmaster.com

Conductor Xian Zhang, who leads the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra on Sunday with guest violinist Jennifer Koh, had her moment as a 19-year-old student in China, when her teacher feigned illness and told her to conduct the China National Opera in a performance of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.”

It would be Zhang’s first time conducting an orchestra at any level, period.

“I thought my life was going to end,” Zhang said. “I’m thinking, ‘My God, how am I going to do this?’ This was a young girl who’d never conducted a group before.”

It went so well the orchestra invited her back, but after the performance, Zhang was in tears.

It wasn’t because it went poorly. The “silly young girl” had worn stilettos for the five-hour performance.

“My feet really, really hurt, never that bad in my life,” she said, laughing.

FLASH FORWARD a decade to 2002, when Lorin Maazel, then music director of the New York Philharmonic, awarded Zhang the top prize in his prestigious conducting contest.

Maazel told the crowd, “You are seeing magic. This is where classical music is going to go in the next decades.”

Zhang, who’d come to the U.S. in 1998 to study, has done much to fulfill that promise. She’s been associate conductor with the New York Philharmonic and was the first woman to conduct the venerable Dresden Staatskapelle in Germany — a performance praised for “its verve, bold contrasts and precise dynamics.”

She is artistic director of “La Verdi” in Milan — the first woman to have such a position with an Italian orchestra — and she’s conducted symphonies throughout Europe, the U.S. and China.

She also fulfills the “magical” part of her job, building a reputation for precise, elegant moves with her wand — or rather, baton.

“Conducting is such an art. I wish there were more people trying to understand what it is,” she said. “It’s not just waving your arms with a stick. And it’s not a dance either. It’s something very spiritual, and very mental but also physical. One needs to have the technical facility to make himself or herself understood by a group of musicians … without saying a word.”

She called her program Sunday a “joyous” event. It features Rossini’s “Overture to William Tell” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, with Koh featured in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

Although “William Tell” is well-known as the “Lone Ranger” theme, Zhang, as a Chinese native, is more taken with the slower passages.

“It’s so beautiful, so well-written,” she said. “For us, as professional musicians, the slow part is so rewarding, and makes us feel very satisfied. And then the fast part is just a great ride.”

She also loves the Tchaikovsky, which is considered one of his lesser symphonies despite its technical challenges. The piece is filled with sprightly Russian dance themes, concluding with a powerhouse finale.

“You feel this force that’s unstoppable, no one can stop this. It has such a drive to the end,” she said of the last movement.

Koh is happy to return to Honolulu, she said, after well-received performances here in the mid-2000s. Since then, she’s earned Grammy nominations for her 2008 album “String Poetic,” and performed for first lady Michelle Obama and the former first lady of South Korea, Kim Yoon-ok.

“I’m so excited to come back,” she said. “I love the musicians out there. I loved being out there. That was my first experience in Hawaii.”

Born and raised near Chicago by Korean immigrant parents, she’s known for her “intensity” onstage, a characterization that mystifies her a bit.

“The main thing I’m thinking about is what the music is trying to say,” she said. “I can’t think so much about what it’s like from the outside. It’s more of an internal process.”

She considers her performance of the “Four Seasons” a matter of “coming full circle.”

“It was something I learned as a kid, and for a long time I felt ambivalent about performing it in public,” she said. “You heard it everywhere, in elevators, in grocery stores.”

The ubiquitous work is known for sonnets Vivaldi wrote describing scenes portrayed in the music, such as birds celebrating the return of spring with “festive song,” breezes caressing “a murmuring stream” and a sudden summer storm.

Koh, who usually adds improvisation into her performances, takes those descriptions to heart.

“In autumn, he talks about this like bacchanalian thing, where everyone’s completely drunk. So how I interpret that musically is definitely linked very closely to that,” she said.

“At a certain point I realized that it’s almost performance art. With the poetry that Vivaldi wrote, and then also the music that accompanies that idea, for me it became really interesting.

“It’s actually a great piece. It’s incredibly dramatic, and incredibly extreme, and it’s fun to play it to all extremes.”

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