Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Breakthrough: First female conductor wins titled post in a BBC orchestra

Xian Zhang. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega
Here's a gentle crack in the glass overhead: Xian Zhang has been named principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. This is the first time ever that a conductor who happens to be female has been given a titled post with one of the BBC's five orchestras. Note the date: December 2015.

Zhang, 42, has also recently been appointed music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and has served as music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi since 2009. Her debut performance in her new BBCNOW post will be on 27 September 2016.

She is interviewed by Tom Service in The Guardian today.

I talked to her last year for Classical Music Magazine's 'Meet the Maestro' series. Here are a few choice quotes:
Zhang, 40, has been at the helm of the [Milan] orchestra – which is known at home as simply La Verdi – for five years, the first woman ever appointed music director of an Italian symphony orchestra. She says that has witnessed a sea-change in attitudes. “In the beginning it was like no-man’s land – or no-woman’s land!” she laughs. “People here had never seen a woman conductor before. Of course I arrived without realising that. It was probably better that way, because otherwise I would have been way too intimidated.”...
....As for what she wryly terms “the woman conductor question”, Zhang suggests: “It’s a matter of time. I think the public is in general very open, but orchestras and people who work in this environment have to be perhaps less self-protective – this is stopping more progress from happening earlier. They don’t necessarily have to be positive about it, but at least to be neutral and see if people are gifted before considering if they are a woman or a man.” In Milan, though, she has spotted a surprise advantage. “A quintessential point in Italian culture is that people greatly respect a mother figure,” she says. “Maybe that helped me to be accepted as conductor of an orchestra. It makes sense! When I first arrived I was seven months pregnant with my first son, so that was how people saw me for the first time. At my first concert after my second son was born, some of the audience gave me presents for the baby. I was so touched.”
Read the whole interview here...

NOTE (4 December): A certain amount of Twitter chatter has questioned whether this counts because JoAnn Falletta was principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra from 2011 to 2014 and the Ulster Orchestra receives some money and broadcasts from the BBC. So let's get this straight: the BBC tells me that the Ulster Orchestra is not "a BBC orchestra" because it is not managed by the BBC. It is an independent orchestra and it has a broadcasting deal. "Principal guest conductor" meanwhile remains a post of significant prominence, one that is held in other UK orchestras by the likes of Daniel Harding (LSO), Pinchas Zukerman (RPO) and Markus Stenz (The HallĂ©).