In 2010 Xian Zhang debuted as a conductor of The Hague’s Residentieorkest to rave reviews. Her performance tonight definitely justified those reviews, she and the orchestra were on excellent form. Of course it should not be important to talk about a performer’s gender, but as a female fan of classical music, I certainly found it refreshing to see a female conductor in charge of an orchestra, especially one with such prodigious skill. At times her energy and movement reminded me of another one of Holland’s favourite miniature conductors; Yannick Nézet-Seguin, whom I very much admire.

© Stephanie Berger
© Stephanie Berger

Inspired by the Shakespeare play, Tchaikovksy in fact wrote three versions of the symphonic poem Romeo and Juliet, the last one, written in 1880, being the piece performed tonight. There is always a risk when playing a piece as popular as Romeo & Juliet; it could become a dull and predictable performance, because many of the audience members will have heard it before, and the performance has to be perfect in order to be impressive. The Residentieorkest and Xian Zhang were more than up to the challenge, however. They managed to not only bring out the beautiful melodies that are so essential to this piece but, much more importantly, they emphasized its tragedy. The lower strings depict a sense of doom throughout the piece, and while we can also hear depictions of love and excitement, this doom is never far away. Xian Zhang’s conducting contrasts complete control of the orchestra with allowing herself and the musicians to be swept away by the music, which created a wonderful performance.

The second work of the evening, Tchaikovksy’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher (Memory of a dear place), arranged for violin and strings by Alexandru Lascae, was unfortunately not quite as exhilarating. Originally written for violin and piano (the only work by Tchaikovksy for those particular instruments), it is a three-movement piece with a Méditation, Scherzo and Mélodie. The first movement, Méditation was originally written as the first movement of Tchaikovksy’s Violin Concerto but he decided against its use and edited it for Souvernir d’un lieu cher instead. Alexandru Lascae’s arrangement for violin and strings gives the piece extra power, and it makes the piece flow somewhat more smoothly than the original, perhaps too smoothly. Although the violinist Lucian-Leonard Raiciof ( he is usually the concertmaster of the Residentieorkest) gave a technically perfect performance, it lacked heart and idiosyncrasy. The piece itself can be exquisite, subtle and beautiful, but this performance turned into easy-listening. The string section of the orchestra played perfectly, and Xian Zhang certainly guided them into a pitch-perfect performance, but with the solo lacking emotion, it was quite the disappointment.

Thankfully, the orchestra was back in full force for Rachmaninoff's Symphony No.2. Another classic Russian work, Rachmaninoff's second symphony is an incredibly exciting piece of music. It is a broody, energetic and passionate symphony, with the fourth movement being especially grand and captivating. After receiving terrible reviews for his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff considered himself incapable of writing a good symphony for many years, but this Second Symphony, written in 1907, is still performed often and with good reason. It contains four movements and the themes from the first three all return in the last movement. The symphony shows that Rachmaninoff was not only an excellent composer of piano music, but that he had quite the skill for orchestral works, I find the music written for strings in this symphony to be particularly beautiful and moving. The cellists in the orchestra were especially good, attacking their instruments in fiery fashion, while still maintaining the subtleties of the symphony. Xian Zhang again took the orchestra to great heights, loosening the reins at appropriate moments without the music becoming muddled. All in all, the evening was a fantastic exhibition of Xian Zhang’s connection with the Residentieorkest, and this reviewer certainly hopes she will return.