SAME-DAY REVIEW: Mei-Ann Chen conducts Pasadena Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Pasadena Symphony.
Mei-Ann, conductor; James Ehnes, violin

Huang: Saibei Dance
(from Sabei Dance Suite No. 2);
Korngold: Violin Concerto

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5

Saturday, October 29, 2011 Ambassador Auditorium

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Mei-Ann Chen, a 38-year-old Taiwan-born conductor, is
diminutive in stature but she packs a wallop on the podium; in fact, she’s a
human dynamo who makes Gustavo Dudamel seem sedate by comparison. She’s also
one of the fast-rising stars in the conducting firmament with positions at the
Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfionietta (the “Windy City’s” equivalent to
the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra).

 

This afternoon she helped open the Pasadena Symphony’s 83rd
season before a disappointingly small crowd. Too bad; they missed an exciting
concert with some top-notch music making. (the program repeated this evening to
a larger audience).

 

Chen’s exuberance was on display from the Star Spangled Banner – she had the snare
drum rattling as she walked briskly on stage. After that unfortunately
predictable opening, Chen introduced to local audiences Saibei Dance, a four-minute dance/fanfare by Chinese composer
An-Lun Huang whose flashy rhythms were perfect for Chen’s arm-whirling,
gyrating conducting style and the performance benefitted from spiffy solos from
Donald Foster, clarinet, Gary Woodward, flute, and James Thatcher, horn.

 

Violinist James Ehnes then joined Chen and the orchestra for
Korngold’s Violin Concerto, a 1945 work that melds tunes drawn from Korngold’s
motion picture scores from the 1930s overlaid by a wicked violin solo line that
Jascha Heifetz asked the composer to make more difficult than he had originally
written.

 

Ehnes — who towers over Chen — has become a champion of this
neglected work; his recording of the Korngold, Barber and Walton violin
concertos with Bramwell Tovey and Vancouver Symphony won Grammy and Juno Awards
in 2008. Ehnes’ sweet tone was very much in evidence in the first and second
movements and he handled the final movement’s pyrotechnic difficulties with seeming
ease. Chen and the orchestra accompanied sensitively.

 

After intermission, Chen concluded with has become her
signature work: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the piece she conducted in the
finals when she became the first woman ever to win Denmark’s Malko Conducting
Competition, in 2005.

 

This was a reading full of pulsating energy from first note
to last. Chen shaped each phrase with flair and the orchestra responded in
first-rate fashion. The strings were lushly resonant, the wind principals
(especially Foster, Laura Wickes, oboe, Rose Corrigan, bassoon and Woodward)
were at the top of their games, and the brass rang out with gleaming vigor.
Even when compared with many performances of this familiar work this fall, this
one measured up well.

 

The PSO seems content to continue with a series of guest
conductrs and Music Advisor James DePreist, but Mei-Ann Chen is someone
definitely to keep very much on the radar screen.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

On a note of irony at afternoon when the PSO and Ehnes
were playing the Korngold Violin Concerto, Turner Classic Movies was showing
the 1938 motion picture, The Legend of
Robin Hood.
Korngold won an Oscar for his score for that film.

The next PSO concert is a holiday program on Dec. 3 at All
Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper, music director of the West Virginia
Symphony, will lead the orchestra, Donald Brinegar Singers, Los Angeles
Children’s Chorus and vocalist Lisa Vroman.

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

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