In this cultural moment where issues of gender inequality, as well as the revelations and consequences of the #MeToo movement have gripped the United States and, indeed, much of the world, classical music appears to finally be engaging in introspection about how it too has much work to do with respect to those matters. It was fitting that mere days before Merriam-Webster announced that “feminism” was its word of the year, a guest appeared on the rostrum of Disney Hall – Chinese conductor Xian Zhang – who embodied the breakthroughs in classical music that women have succeeded in making in recent years, challenging the notion that the art of conducting is inherently a male discipline.

Xian Zhang © Benjamin Ealovega
Xian Zhang
© Benjamin Ealovega

The 44-year-old has been riding a wave of growing respect and attention for her work. At age 30 she became the first female conductor to lead the Staatskapelle Dresden. Recently she was appointed both music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Her appearance last Sunday with the Los Angeles Philharmonic – in a program of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Chen Yi – was sandwiched between guest conducting stints by Mirga Gražintė-Tyla in November and Susanna Mälkki next month, both of them colleagues who have also done much to dispel stereotypes about women on the podium.

Zhang was joined on the program by pianist Sergio Tiempo in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor that pulled and pushed this rhapsodic score needlessly. Zhang attempted to impart a sense of unity, but Tiempo was of another mind entirely. His tendency towards abrupt and inexplicable exaggerations in dynamics and tempi, not to mention the percussiveness of his touch, reveal him to be an epigone of his fellow Argentine, Martha Argerich. Another pianist perhaps would have integrated these rubati and personal flourishes into a cohesive vision of the work as a whole, thinking through this score from the inside out, each moment being beautiful in and of itself, but also acting as another brick in the concerto’s architecture. But Tiempo’s choices felt imposed from the outside, lending an air of the arbitrary and willful to his improvisatory asides.

Telling was his handling of the Prestissimo section in the central Andantino semplice movement, a passage that ought to impress the listener like a play of light glimmering against finely etched silverplate. Instead, Tiempo ploughed through it with a force better suited to Prokofiev, with the scalar runs sounding clattery and blurred rather than gossamer, punctuated at intervals by the pianist’s plodding left hand.

The heart of the program was Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6, a brooding and often anguished work that seems closer in mood to Shostakovich than to the ebullient music the composer is better known for. Zhang demonstrated a fine grip on the symphony’s form, with climaxes carefully shaped and controlled. The iciness of the first movement (with the sleek Philharmonic strings in superb form) led inevitably into the piercing lament of the central Largo, which in turn led into the breezy, if uneasy finale that served as an appropriate foil to both. If not the last word in interpretive depth – the shadows of menace that stir beneath the finale’s clowning surface was decidedly underplayed – Zhang’s forthright conception of the work was at least free of the seemingly random quirks that marred the Tchaikovsky.

Opening the program was Ge Xu (Antiphony) by Chen Yi, herself a pioneer in China by being the first woman to graduate in musical composition from Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. It was a noisy and brash work in the manner of Bartók Four Orchestral Pieces that paraded appealingly before the listener, though without leaving a distinct impression.

What did leave a mark was the quality of Zhang’s musicianship, as well as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s work in broadening the opportunities in the world of classical music.