STORY AND LINKS: Rising-star conductor Mei-Ann Chen to lead Pasadena Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

A shorter version of
this article was first published today in Pasadena Scene magazine.

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Pasadena Symphony
Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor; James Ehnes, violin

Sat., Oct. 29, 2011; 2 and 8 p.m.

Huang: Saibei Dance; Korngold:
Violin Concerto; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5

Ambassador Auditorium, 300 W. Green St., Pasadena

Tickets: $25-$100. Senior rush tickets ($15) for 2 p.m.
concert only. Student rush tickets and “Sound Check” cards also available.

Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

 

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Rising star Mei-Ann Chen will conduct the Pasadena Symphony
on Oct. 29, the opening program in the PSO’s season at Ambassador Auditorium.

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Now into its second season without a music director, the
Pasadena Symphony will once again be led in four of its five concerts by a
parade of relatively unknown guest conductors. Consequently, audiences and
musicians have learned to approach each program with a spirit of investigative
adventure, wondering what sort of magic might come from each guest conductor.

 

Naturally in the back of many people’s minds is an unvoiced
thought: “Will this guest be the PSO’s next music director?” (For the record,
management continues to maintain that the orchestra is happy with the current
plan of using guest conductors and is not actively seeking anyone to replace
Jorge Mester as its next music director. James DePreist continues to act as
music advisor and will lead the final concert this season).

 

However, the opening concerts for the PSO’s 2011-2012 season
on Oct. 29 may turn out to be one of those events that people will one day look
back and remember, “I was there.” That’s because the guest conductor will be
Mei-Ann Chen, a 38-year-old, Taiwan-born dynamo who is one of the
fastest-rising stars in the international conducting firmament.

 

That ascension was a long time getting off the launching
pad. Although Chen is considerably older than wunderkind maestros such as Gustavo Dudamel, she considers herself
a “baby” in the conducting world. She can still remember a time when, after
receiving her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting from the University
of Michigan she “received more rejection letters from orchestras than the
number of notes I had conducted professionally,” as she notes wryly.

 

Even after Chen in 2005 became the first woman to win
Denmark’s prestigious Malko conducting competition, opportunities were
initially scarce. Eventually, however, doors started to crack open. Thanks to a
fellowship from the League of American Orchestras, Chen (she has lived in the
U.S. since 1989) completed successful assistant conductor stints with the
Oregon, Atlanta and Baltimore symphonies. Those led to her first major
appointment last year, when she became music director of the Memphis Symphony.

 

This year she also took the reins at the Chicago Sinfonietta,
an orchestra similar to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in size and its need
to define itself outside the orbit of one of the world’s great orchestras, the
Chicago Symphony. Chen’s first concerts with her Chicago ensemble elicited rave
reviews from music critics at the city’s two largest papers, John von Rein
(LINK) and Andrew Patner (LINK).

 

In addition to these two significant leadership positions
(she spends four weeks in Chicago and 12 in Memphis) Chen now has numerous guest-conducting
requests beginning to flood in to her. She accepts about 20 each year.

 

“I feel very fortunate because I’m at a point where I have
to pick and choose concerts to conduct,” says Chen. “The bad side is that
unfortunately I have to turn down some requests for return appearances, which I
hate to do because I don’t like disappointing an orchestra that gave me a
chance and I like to maintain relationships with orchestras and their
musicians.”

 

One of the invites she did choose was from the Pasadena
Symphony. “They were interested early on,” remembers Chen, “and came to see and
hear me conduct with the Pacific Symphony in Orange County last June,” a
concert that earned a stellar review from Orange County Register Music Critic
Timothy Mangan (HERE).

 

However, what really sold Chen on making the trip to the
Crown City was the program, which she had a hand in creating.

 

The evening will open with the Saibei Dance (from Saibei
Dance Suite No. 2)
by An-Lun Huang, who was born in China but lives in
Toronto. “He wrote during China’s Cultural Revolution [1966-1976],” explains
Chen, “and, like thousands of people, was — because he was an artist — exiled
to a farm/labor camp north of the Great Wall [Saibei means North]. One
day each year, the residents in the community would put aside their struggles
to celebrate the harvest, which in the midst of privation at leave gave them
food. This piece celebrates that day.

 

“You’d think that being born in Taiwan that I’d know this
piece,” continues Chen, “but it wasn’t until the Alabama Symphony decided to do
a multicultural festival last year that I first conducted it. More importantly,
it was also the first piece that I ever conducted with the Chicago Sinfonietta
and it literally changed the entire search process there. Within five minutes,
the musicians and I had fallen in love with each other and, even though I was a
real long shot to replace Paul Freeman, [the Sinfonietta's founding music
director, who was retiring after 24 years], I was chosen. I think those first
few minutes with this piece played a huge role in that decision and in my life.”
Later in the year, she also conducted the piece during her Austria debut.

 

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The middle work on the PSO program will be Erich Wolfgang
Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with James Ehnes (right) as the soloist. “Korngold’s
granddaughter, Katy Korngold Hubbard, got me into his music,” recalls Chen. “Korngold
was sort of a genius but was one of those who got caught up in the Nazi Germany
era. There were people in Europe at the time who believed that Korngold would
become the next Mahler or Mozart.”

 

Korngold eventually fled to California where he gained fame
for his motion picture scores; he won an Oscar for the score to The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. He
also wrote the 1936 score for Anthony
Adverse
that also won the Oscar, although in those days the Academy
presented the award to the music department head of the studio that produced
the movie, not the composer. Korngold was also nominated for two other Oscars.
Equally important, Korngold’s lush, romantic writing style paved the way for
composers such as John Williams.

 

Korngold vowed never to write symphonic music until Hitler
was defeated. With the end of World War II, he once again concentrated on music
for the concert stage and the Violin Concerto, written in 1945, was his first
effort in this “new life.” Jascha Heifetz premiered the concerto in 1947 with
the St. Louis Symphony, but although Heifetz championed the piece but for
decades, Korngold’s association with film music clouded his “classical”
reputation with “purists.”

 

In recent years, Ehnes has become the new champion of the
concerto. His recording (LINK) of the Korngold, Walton and Barber violin
concertos, with Bramwell Tovey conducting the Vancouver Symphony, won the 2008
Grammy and Juno awards.

 

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the concluding work on the PSO
program, has a special place in Chen’s heart because it was the symphony she
conducted when she won the Malko Competition. “There were 242 competitors from
40 countries,” remembers Chen, “and I had to be the longest of long shots. Some
conductors had lots of experience conducting in Europe — one was a protg of
Valery Gergiev — and here I was, music director of a youth orchestra in a city
(Portland, Ore.) that many people didn’t even know existed.”

 

Winning Malko eventually changed Chen’s life but the passion
to conduct has been her goal since she was age 10. “I grew up in Taiwan as a
very shy child,” she recounts. “At age 10, I became a violinist in an orchestra
and saw my first conductor on the podium. I was hooked; I knew right then
that’s what I wanted to do with my life. There’s a tremendous sense of power
when you’re conducting because you’re trying to galvanize all of the separate
energies on stage into one energy that can burst forth through the music.”

 

That sense of energy bursting forth is a recurrent theme in
audience and critics’ reaction to her concerts. Andrew Patner in the Chicago Sun-Times called her “a rare
talent.” Reviewing her inaugural concert as the Chicago Sinfonietta’s
music director last month, John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “Chen … is a musician for whom ‘dynamic’ and
‘electric’ seem altogether too limiting. Her entire body is a bundle of podium
energy; her keen ear and sharp eyes miss nothing. Thanks to her clear beat and
articulate gestures, orchestral musicians pick up at once on her interpretive
ideas, sending them out to the listener with much the same immediacy of effect.”

Now that Chen has gained a firm foothold in the conducting
fraternity (which still includes very few women — JoAnn Falletta, music
director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginla Symphony, and Marin
Alsop, who heads the Baltimore Symphony, are the two most prominent), she’s eager
to pave the way for future conductors, both female and male.

 

One way she did that came earlier this year. Last January a
guest conductor with the Memphis Symphony cancelled an October concert. “Rather
than just find a substitute, I said to the orchestra and the musicians, ‘let’s
do something really radical — let’s hold a conducting competition, instead.’ ”
she explains.

 

The result was a whirlwind: decision in January, brochures
distributed in February, entries in by March, preliminary rounds in April,
finals in May. Despite the short notice, 236 people from 30 countries entered,
in part because the jury included some significant people both in terms of
musicianship and potential career-building opportunities. Robert Spano, music
director of the Atlanta Symphony and newly named head of the Aspen Music
Festival, headed the jury, which included Anthony Fogg, artistic administrator
of the Boston Symphony and the Tanglewood Festival, and Aaron Jay Kernis,
Pulitzer-prize winning composer and professor at the Yale School of Music.

 

There was no age limit (nearly all competitions have either
an upper or lower age limit, or both) and the first-prize winner was
40-year-old Ken Lam, who set aside a law career to pursue his love of music and
conducting. Lam and the other two prize winners will conduct a Memphis Symphony
concert in October while Chen is in Pasadena.

 

“I’ve had so many people who have helped me during the past
few years, ” says Chen. “As I grow more successful and come more into a
position of power, I cannot but help others who are coming after me. It’s my
time to turn the tables around.”

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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