Zheng Xiaoying, conductor of Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra 'unstoppable'

Updated: 30 Mar 2010
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Zheng Xiaoying is unstoppable. 
Even at 80, the country's first female orchestra conductor still shows up regularly on the podium to direct first-class orchestras with her agile, fluid gestures.

She plans to wave the baton as long as she can hold it.

A former dean of the conducting department of the Central Conservatory of Music and principal conductor for the National Opera House in Beijing, Zheng moved to Xiamen in Fujian province 11 years ago after she retired.

At the local government's invitation, she helped establish the country's first privately owned orchestra there - the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra.

On April 11, Zheng will bring the orchestra to Beijing for a concert in the National Center for Performing Arts. The musical feast will combine Western masterpieces and ones composed by Chinese musicians.

Beijing audiences have missed her for a long time.

"It is not easy these years," she said, recalling the effort it took to nurture a new musical ensemble.

Her initial impression of Xiamen was a disappointing one. She fretted about the local residents' limited understanding of classical music and the dearth of cultural events in the city.

"This orchestra was established from nothing, I can say that," she said.

Among the obstacles that the new orchestra encountered, the toughest was a shortage of funding because it was not a State-owned orchestra.

Zheng, as music director, had to hound various enterprises for sponsorship to maintain the orchestra's five-hour daily rehearsal regimen and a regular concert schedule.

She said she was dismayed by the attitude and ignorance of classical music by businesspeople in the area. Sometimes she had to place advertisements in newspapers as a last resort to "beg for alms", she said, using a Buddhism term in self-mockery.

"During those low moments, I felt very lonely as few could understand me and the value of classical music," Zheng said. "But as a second thought I told myself that maybe that is the reason that I should hold on and continue to do it (promote classical music)."

Her persistence - and perspiration - finally paid off.

She advocated for the formation of a board of directors for the orchestra, a feat she accomplished in December.

Zheng invited the vice-mayor of the city and some heads of big local companies to join the board. In Zheng's eyes, the orchestra would need a stable channel in which to seek capital.

In recent years, it has become a first-class orchestra thanks to consistent rehearsals and high-quality concerts at home and abroad.

Zheng holds weekly concerts for citizens in Xiamen and people from nearby counties who may have never listened to classical music.

"There are two functions of music," she said. "One is for fun, or for entertainment. But the other is to educate people, say, give them knowledge and culture. And the latter is what we endeavor to do."

As a result, tens of thousands of Xiamen citizens have become fans of the orchestra and have fallen in love with classical music.

The vice-mayor of the city, Pan Shijian, is one of them. On various occasions he has stated how the orchestra and music impacted his life. The orchestra, Pan and others have said, is Xiamen's new calling card.

Many believe Zheng was born to be a conductor, confident, articulate and persistent. Those qualities are the necessary components of a professional conductor. Indeed, the madame maestro said she never picked the occupation, but the occupation picked her.

Born in Shanghai in 1929, she began to learn piano when she was 6 years old. Music was only a hobby at the time she enrolled at Peking Union Medical College to study medicine.

In 1948, she dropped out of college against her parents' will and joined a performing troupe of the liberation army in Wuhan, Hubei province. During that time, she was chosen to be a chorus conductor. The troupe's director had discovered that she could play piano and read music.

Three years later, she began to receive systematic training at the Central Conservatory of Music and later went to Moscow to learn to conduct operas from Russian conductors. Since then, the baton has become a lifetime companion. She was not only the first Chinese conductor to be invited to direct an opera in a foreign country, but she also founded the first all-female orchestra, which gave a grand performance during the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Most remarkably, she did not give up conducting even in the hardest moment of her life.

In early 1990 Zheng was diagnosed with rectal cancer, but she did not end her dream of music while battling the disease for about eight years. Less than two months after a successful operation in 1998, she was back atop the podium. And that time, she was on the stage of the National Opera House of the Republic of Estonia.

She recalled in a television interview that the concert was her most impressive moment.

When the curtain rose and the spotlight was cast upon her she began to direct the prelude of Carmen, the foreign audience gave her a huge welcome and applause. She was so excited that she felt she had a rebirth. "I felt at that time that I am still myself," she said.

Today, Zheng still sets a pioneering example. Zheng and the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra toured Europe and the United States 2008 and 2009, respectively. This year, they are planning a third tour, of Southeast Asia.

Besides performing the regular Western pieces, The Echoes of Hakka Earth Buildings is a symphony Zheng said she is proud to introduce to the world. 
"This symphony is an epic tale about the life and struggles of the people from the Kejia ethnic minority community, and it shows their tough spirit," she said. "Written by our Chinese composer, this Chinese story conveys the feelings through the style of Western classical music, and it matches perfectly well.

"It is hugely welcomed no matter where we go. And in the last chapter of the chorus, the foreign audiences even chant with us," she said.

Although conducting is considered a very energy-consuming job - Zheng said she only slept four hours a day in recent weeks - the work "is not a big deal", she said.
"As a conductor who was not allowed to touch music during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), if you know how I went through that period, you will understand how I enjoy and cherish the moments when I can devote all myself to the music," she said.

Zheng can barely find a moment to rest. But when she is free, she still tries to do something for her orchestra. Since learning to blog in 2006, she has actively posted stories and performance information to promote the orchestra and classical music.

In September, the students that Zheng once taught at the Central Conservatory held a concert in Beijing to commemorate her 60 years of teaching. To her delight, many of her former students are among the country's most famous conductors. Some have led orchestras in Europe.

"I really feel rewarded as I saw them mature," she said.

"I know that I will not stand on podium forever. I will really quit once I feel my response has become too slow to follow the music. But fortunately, it is not yet time," she said, smiling. 
SOURCE: China Daily
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