The upcoming concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra will mark Xian Zhang’s challenging debut with the London orchestra as she conducts four concerts in four venues in four days: Bedford, Leicester, Basingstoke and London. Pairing Brahm’s Violin Concerto with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, the UK audiences are in for a treat with Zhang’s “hungry, urgent and heart-on-sleeve” approach to the Russian work.

Xian Zhang
© Benjamin Ealovega

Bachtrack: Your four upcoming concerts with the Philharmonia will be the first time you’ve conducted this orchestra. What are your impressions of this orchestra and how do you approach meeting an orchestra for the first time?

Xian Zhang: The Philharmonia is undoubtedly one of the great orchestras of the world and I am really looking forward to making my debut with them. I know from recordings and broadcasts, and from some of my conductor colleagues, that the brass and wind sound of this orchestra is very special. Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony with them should be pretty impressive!

You conduct three programmes pairing Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: very different works. What inspired this pairing?

Both are monumental works – both require a lot of concentration from not only the musicians on stage but also from the audience.

Tell us about Alina Pogostkina, soloist in the Brahms. Have you worked with her before? What do you admire about her sound?

I haven’t worked with her before but I do know of her playing. Her sound is very lyrical, and her long phrasing is so perfect for this concerto. I am expecting a very moving interpretation from her.

Brahms’ concerto is often cited as one of the best in the genre. What makes it such a great work?

This is a work which not only needs a violinist with a supreme technique – Brahms wrote the work to showcase the virtuosic talents of his long-time friend, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim – but also needs a consummate musician. I defy anyone not to moved by the sublime second movement!

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is sometimes given the subtitle “a Soviet artist's creative response to justified criticism” following Pravda’s condemnation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In this work, how far is Shostakovich giving the Party what it wanted?

A few days before the Fifth Symphony’s premiere, an article appeared in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva, describing the work as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism.” The article was purportedly written by the composer. Whether Shostakovich or someone more closely connected with the Party actually wrote it is unclear, but the phrase “justified criticism” has been associated with the symphony ever since. Shostakovich had to have the piece vetted by a Party committee before the public premiere, but fortunately Stalin found the politics of the music acceptable and Shostakovich won a reprieve – at least for another decade. But even with the success of this symphony, the official approval was not enough to completely safeguard the composer's position. Throughout the rest of his career, Shostakovich still had to face the whims of the Soviet thought police. However, audiences perhaps hear something different... we hear irony and biting sarcasm in the darkly lyrical music, which Shostakovich shows via some highly imaginative orchestrations.

And how far does Shostakovich protest in the finale? Do you favour a slow tempo here?

The finale is definitely the symphony's puzzle movement! I read that Rostropovich, who knew Shostakovich as a close friend, made the case that this music "is an act of subversive irony which "celebrates" a forced march to a hollow victory”. The tempo I usually take in the end of the symphony is not extremely slow.

You perform four Philharmonia concerts in four venues in four days. As a conductor, what do you have to do to adapt the orchestra’s sound to fit four – possibly very different – halls?

Actually this is something I am very used to doing. In New Jersey, where I am music director, we have residencies in halls throughout the entire state. This means that when selecting repertoire for the season, I have to take into account the needs of many other halls – but this does also mean that we reach many more people than if we performed in just one hall. The musicians of the Philharmonia will be used to each of the halls in which we are to perform. The short correcting rehearsal we have before each concert, as much as anything, is for me to get used to the acoustic so that I can adjust tempi or balances.

Interview sponsored by the Philharmonia Orchestra