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

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



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



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


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.




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.



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

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on October 27, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



Each Thursday morning, I list five events that peak my
interest, including (ideally) at least one with free admission (or, at a minimum,
inexpensive tickets). This week it was hard to get down to five. Here’s today’s



Tomorrow and
Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m. at REDCAT (Walt Disney Concert Hall)

Southwest Chamber
Music: Ten Freedom Summers

To open a season celebrating its 25th anniversary, Pasadena-based
Southwest Chamber Music joins forces with the Golden Quartet to present the
world premiere of Ten Freedom Summers
by composer and jazz trumpeter Wadada Lee Smith.


The composition — which was inspired by the Civil Rights
movement from 1954-1964 and August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, in which each play
chronicles a decade of African-American life in the 20th century — also uses
archival news footage from the era and other cinematic effects. The piece will
take three evenings to perform; you’re encouraged to attend all three nights to
get the full effect but SCM tells me that each evening stands on its own musically.


Get more
information on the composition HERE and by downloading the media  release.


A link to an article by Greg Burk in the Los
Angeles Times
is HERE.


General admission tickets are $38 for each program. Concert information:


Tomorrow and
Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic: Gustavo Dudamel and Richard Goode

Conductors love micro-macro programs and Gustavo Dudamel is
no exception. Tomorrow night’s Los Angeles Philharmonic “Casual Friday” program
begins with Goode as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, and
concludes with Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also
Sprach Zarathustra.
The latter is an
eight-movement work that many people know only because of the opening section, Sunrise, which was the theme music for
Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1968 motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. That dramatic opening sounds particularly impressive
in Disney Hall because the hall’s pipe organ adds grandiose weight to the
climactic measures, but there’s a lot more to come in the succeeding 30 or so


The Saturday and Sunday programs add Gyrgy Kurtg‘s
Grabstein fr Stephan as the opening
work. These concerts mark Dudame’s final appearances locally until “The Mahler
Project” begins next January. Info:


Saturday at 2 and 8
p.m. Ambassador Auditorium

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

Chen, one of the fastest-rising conducting stars today,
leads the Pasadena Symphony in its season-opening concerts, which will
conclude with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Ehnes will be the soloist in
Korngold’s Violin Concerto (his recording of the Korngold, Walton and Barber
violin concertos, with Bramwell Tovey conducting the Vancouver Symphony, won
the 2008 Grammy and Juno awards). For my Pasadena
profile on Chen, click HERE. Concert


Saturday at 4 p.m.
at Downey Theater

Chorale Bel Canto and
Opera a la Carte

The Whittier-based chorus Chorale Bel Canto opens its 30th
season by joining with Opera a la Carte in an unusual program (for CBC, that
is): Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates
of Penzance
. Richard Sheldon, who founded Opera a la Carte in 1970, stars
as the Modern Major General. Info:


And the weekend’s “free admission” program …


Sunday at 3 at Vic
Lopez Auditorium (Whittier High School)

Rio Hondo Symphony;
Kimo Furumoto, conductor

The Rio Hondo Symphony focuses on small pieces Sunday with a
program entitled “Good Things: Small Packages.” The program will begin with Mozart’s
dramatic Overture to Don Giovanni and
will also include Bartok’s Romanian Folk
Dances Suite
, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella
and Dvorak’s Czech Suite. Info:



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



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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Classical music schedule — overload or overjoy?

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

A shorter version of this
article will be published tomorrow in the above papers.



In every classical-music season there are one or two weeks
where the operating word is “overload.” The upcoming fortnight counts as one of
those blocks, especially as it comes on the heels of an extremely busy weekend.
Chronologically, here are some of the major upcoming events (check my Blog for
additions, updates, more details and reviews):


Tonight (Saturday)
at 8 p.m. at the Alex Theater, Glendale; tomorrow (Sunday) at 7 p.m. at Royce
Hall, UCLA

Los Angeles Chamber

Music Director Jeffrey Kahane leads his ensemble in
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).
Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin will be the soloist in Britten’s Les illuminations and Now sleeps the crimson petal. Info: 213/622-7001;


Tomorrow (Sunday)
at 7 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Los Angeles Master

Music Director Grant Gershon leads the Chorale in the
opening concert of its 48th season with the U.S. premiere of Music for a big church; for tranquility
by Swedish composer Thomas Jennefelt and Morton Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, one of the most popular
compositions of the last quarter century. Paul Meier accompanies on the Disney
Hall organ. Info: 213/972-7282;


Tuesday at 8 p.m.
at Valley Performing Arts Center, Northridge

Mariinsky Theater

Valery Gergiev leads this famed Russian orchestra (formerly
known as the Kirov) in a program of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Alexander
Toradze will be the soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Info: 818) 677-3000;


Thursday and Friday
at 8 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles

Music Director Gustavo Dudamel conducts music by John Adams
and Prokofiev. Johannes Moser will be the soloist in the world premiere of Magnetar, concerto for electric cello by
Mexican composer/guitarist Enrico Chapela. “What,” you ask, “is an electric
cello?” Read all about it and the piece in the words of the composer HERE. Info: 323/850-2000;


Saturday at 7:30
p.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Cappella Gloriana

This San Diego professional chorale opens the church’s Friends of Music series of nine free
concerts performing music by its founder and director, Stephen Sturk, with
organist Martin Green and the San Diego Harmony Ringers Handbell Choir. Info: 626/793-2191;


Saturday at 8 p.m.
at Ambassador Auditorium

The Colburn Orchestra

Music Director Yehuda Gilad leads his excellent ensemble in
Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 and Shostakovich’s Festive
and Cello Concerto No. 1. Colburn student Estelle Choi will be the
soloist in the concerto. The concert is free but tickets must be downloaded
through the school’s Web site. Info:


October 23 at 6
p.m. at Royce Hall (UCLA)

American Youth

Music Director Alexander Treger leads another of the
region’s top-notch training orchestras in Bernstein’s Candide Overture and Tchaikovsky’s
Symphony No. 5. Rod Gilfry will be the soloist in selections from CarouselWest Side StorySweeney Todd and The Most Happy Fella. The concert is free (although a
$10 donation is suggested); make reservations through the orchestra’s Web site.


October 28 and 29
at 8:30 p.m. and 30 at 7 p.m. at REDCAT (Walt Disney Concert Hall)

Southwest Chamber

The Golden Quartet helps SWCM open its 25th season
with Wadada Lee Smith’s Ten Freedom
which takes three evenings to perform and is inspired by the
1954-64 years of the Civil Rights Movement. Get details on the composition HERE.
Concert and ticket info:


Oct. 29 at 2 p.m.
and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena

Pasadena Symphony

Rising conducting star Mei-Ann Chen leads the PSO in its
opening concerts with a program that concludes with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.
5. James Ehnes will be the soloist in Korngold’s Violin Concerto. My profile of
Chen is HERE. Info: 626/793-7172;


Oct. 29 at 4 p.m.
at Downey Civic Theatre

Chorale Bel Canto and
Opera a la Carte

The Whittier-based chorus opens its 30th season
by joining with Opera a la Carte in an unusual program (for CBC, that is):
Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of
. Richard Sheldon, who founded Opera a la Carte in 1970, stars as
the Modern Major General. Info:



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

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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

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



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;


55970-Chen photo 4 Web.jpg

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



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


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.


55971-James Ehnes w-violin 4 Web.jpg

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
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.”



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

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