Carnegie Hall performance nets student honour

Worrying more about finishing an essay on time than finishing first in a competition, Cindy Zhang didn’t realize her name had been called from the podium at Carnegie Hall.

“My brain had shut off,” she said. “I didn’t hear the names. I was just taking it all in.”

The gold, cream and red splendour of the Isaac Stern Auditorium, filled with an enthusiastic crowd, could easily distract. Especially if you’re a first-year master’s degree student who never dreamed you’d perform in Carnegie Hall, particularly at such an early age.

“It was scary when all the people were in it because it does not feel the same,” Zhang said.

But her mother heard her daughter’s name called and ran down the aisle, urging her daughter to accept the award, honorable mention at the 6th annual New Tang Dynasty (NTD) International Vocal Competition.

The competition is part of NTD’s series of cultural events to revive traditional Chinese culture, and each finalist was required to sing a Chinese song in bel canto style along with their own selection of opera pieces.

Zhang’s vocal teacher at Western, Faculty of Music professor Rachel Mallon, told her about the competition last year and encouraged her to enter. In fourth-year, and as president of the Don Wright Faculty of Music Students’ Council, Zhang didn’t think she had time to prepare, especially to learn a song in Mandarin.

“I’m always scared with music,” she said. “I’m better in leadership and social action – that’s where my confidence is.”

Her parents, both engineers, encouraged her to push herself and enter. She found a diction teacher in Toronto and worked all summer on conquering the Mandarin piece. The opera selection she chose was in German.

When the contestants gathered in New York at Hunter College, Zhang was in awe of the international draw – China, Japan, Taiwan, Austria, Italy and throughout North America.

“There was a conglomerate of dialects and languages and a lot of seasoned singers,” she said. “They were all so operatic.”

Their orientation began with a presentation on the organ at Carnegie Hall, followed by introductions, during which one entrant said he’d flown from Tokyo for the chance to sing on that stage.

“I hadn’t clued in that we were singing there,” Zhang said. “Eventually, I realized this was why we were here – competing for an opportunity to sing at Carnegie Hall. That was when the scope of the competition hit me.

“I was close to tears. I wanted to go home. I just wanted to pass the preliminaries.”

Zhang passed the preliminaries and took the attitude she was going to enjoy the rest of the three days.

“I met a lot of interesting people,” she said. “Mario (Zhang, no relation, a Canadian who went on to win the male division) congratulated me and asked what I was singing the next day. He was singing an aria from Aida, which he’d done in 270 shows. There were grads from Eastman and Juilliard and students from Peabody.”

After Zhang sang her German aria, one of the other competitors began speaking backstage to her in German; her diction was so good, he thought it was her first language.

“I told him that’s because at my school we teach diction. The information they give us is correct. (Faculty of Music professor) Todd Wieczorek is very specific in class. It has to sound natural. That was a very reassuring moment for me.”

Zhang heard some amazing singing.

“After this trip, I realize it’s possible, but it’s even harder,” she said. “I have a new respect for singers who uproot their lives for this. I saw people absolutely crushed, lost, weeping when they lost. If you get 10 per cent of what you put out in auditions, that’s a really good career. It was a big lesson.”

Zhang said she was one of the few still in student mode, learning, observing, thinking about homework. She was also the only one whose parents attended with them.

“A reporter caught up with me for an interview when I left Carnegie, and asked me what was next in store, to which I responded, ‘Well, I have a politics paper due next week.’ To my surprise, he started to laugh. He quickly collected himself when he saw that I didn’t understand the humour. So he asked, ‘How old are you?’ I’m 22.  Then he asked, ‘How does it feel to be the youngest finalist to make it to Carnegie?’ That’s when I knew I had accomplished something.”

As for that politics paper?

Zhang’s father drove her back overnight from New York so she could make class Monday morning. As well as working on her master’s degree in music, Zhang is completing an undergraduate degree in political science and wrote the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) exam two weeks before the competition.

“She is the most ambitious, intelligent, interesting woman,” Mallon said. “She was one of only two Canadians who received awards. This is so impressive. This is a huge accomplishment for her first ever major competition.”