If Xian Zhang had any nervousness about her first time conducting the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra as its music director, she sure didn’t show it. Indeed, she couldn’t have appeared more confident, Thursday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, conducting with brisk, commanding energy and an intense focus that helped draw the audience in. She has such a strong physical presence that her conducting almost seemed like an athletic feat. The performances — of Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Symphony No. 5, with an excerpt from the Symphony serving as the encore as well — all drew rapturous applause.
The first female conductor in the orchestra’s history, Zhang, who was born and raised in China, has held major classical music posts around the world, in Beijing, New York, Milan, Sioux City and the Netherlands. She has guest conducted the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra a number of times, but this was her first time doing so during her tenure as music director.
She made a brief speech between the short, rhythmically propulsive Polanaise and the more expansive Concerto, praising several of the orchestra’s new administrative hires, and mentioning some of the offerings from this season that she’s particularly looking forward to (the Winter Festival with Pinchas Zukerman in January, Ravel’s Bolero in April, Yefim Bronfman playing Brahms in June).
She also coached the audience on the correct pronunciation of Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski, who played piano on the Concerto, and dazzled as well, handling it fast, complex lines with ease.
After the concert, Zhang met with a group of reporters, and said orchestra members had really worked hard in preparation of the event, and that “it really paid off … You can tell that they really paid attention.”
She also talked about tinkering with how the musicians were configured onstage, in order to help the sound “blossom,” and what she wants out of the string section. “I really want to intensify their sound. … That’s really one of the main goals, to have much more body and warmth on the strings,” she said.
Xian Zhang and the Orchestra also performed the Tchaikovsky pieces at the Richardson Auditorium in Princeton, the State Theatre in New Brunswick and the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.
This week, they will present a program including Haydn (Adagio from Piano Trio No. 40 and Symphony No. 102); Beethoven (Triple Concerto); and Strauss (Suite from Der Rosenkavalier). The concerts take place Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at BergenPAC in Englewood; and Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 6 at 3 p.m. at NJPAC. Featured musicians will include Pedja Muzijevic, piano; Eric Wyrick, violin; and Jonathan Spitz, cello.
For information, visit njsymphony.org.