This note is like saying goodbye to a friend you only get to see once a year. Hug it a little longer."
— Mei-Ann Chen, rehearsing with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra
Mei-Ann Chen, the first woman to win the prestigious Malko Prize for young conductors, is a shape-shifter. She says she might even be an "imaginary monster," with ears large enough to hear everything. Watching the Memphis Symphony Orchestra's newest conductor work with a roomful of musicians is like watching a natural dancer vanishing into the music, dominating the melody by becoming a part of it. She raises her arms, filling the room, then deflates in a gracefully controlled flurry of fingers and fists.
"My style is very dramatic, but I don't do this for the audience," Chen says with whispery confidence. "Conducting is about being the music, not beating the music. If the music requires [a conductor] to be absolutely serene, then [I should] be that for the musicians."
Chen, whom MSO president Ryan Fleur describes as "a rising star," becomes the music, whether she's playing a packed concert hall in Copenhagen or practicing in a nearly empty theater in East Memphis.
"I think we can accomplish our goals, not with force but articulation," Chen tells MSO players, packed tightly onto the stage at the Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center. They are preparing for the first chamber concert of the 2010-2011 season. "I do not think we have the number of instruments Tchaikovsky had in mind." Then, with an assertive stroke of her baton, the first chord of a new era fills the room.
"First rehearsals can be pretty terrible," Fleur says, after a first practice that was anything but terrible. He's eager to see what happens when an uncommonly creative conductor like Chen is fully engaged with a musician-forward regional symphony that's already at the forefront of industry-wide change. His boundless optimism in the face of difficult economic times is bolstered by surging subscription sales, which are already 30 percent ahead of where they were at this time last year. Every day, he says he encounters new subscribers and first-time ticket buyers who are interested in sampling the MSO based at least in part on the strength of the new conductor's growing reputation.
Jim Hirsch, executive director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, describes Chen as an unstoppable force in the field of live classical music performance. "In 10 or 15 years — maybe less — she will be the conductor of a major international symphony, and Chicago and Memphis will both be very proud to have had her," he says with evangelistic certainty. In addition to serving as the Memphis Symphony Orchestra's fourth musical director, Chen will also succeed the Sinfonietta's visionary founder, Paul Freeman.
"Transitions make the difference between good
and great. I will rehearse transitions over and over."
— Mei-Ann Chen to the MSO
Memphis is still a bit of a mystery to Chen, who only made five brief excursions to the city before becoming a resident in August. She's still figuring out where to get groceries and where to bank, although she says she felt instantly at home with her fellow musicians and an orchestra staff that she describes in the fondest terms. "I'm buried in boxes still," she says. "The first few weeks of a season can be — um — very exciting for an orchestra."
Chen comes to Memphis by way of Baltimore, where she was assistant conductor for the Baltimore Symphony, and Portland, where she was conductor of the Portland Youth Philharmonic. Becoming a symphony maestro fulfills a wish she made 30 years ago.
Chen was born and raised in Kaohsiung, a densely populated and heavily industrialized city on Taiwan's southwestern coast. She describes her family as "non-musical," although she came into contact with classical masterworks by listening to the records that her father would bring home. "My father was playing this beautiful violin piece, from Thaïs, the opera," Chen says, recalling a transformative moment in her young life. "I was taking a nap, when all of a sudden I feel myself so touched by the music that my tears just rolled down my cheek. To this day, I remember that moment of [experiencing] music as its own unique language."
Chen's parents were unable to study music formally, having grown up after the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. During the occupation, only Japanese nationals were allowed to pursue a secondary education. But Chen's parents were able to complete college and become teachers. The young professionals decided that the best way for them to enjoy a free concert in their home every day would be to have their daughters — Mei-Ann and her sister — take up an instrument. "Very naive thinking, obviously," Chen says. "It takes time for any young string player to master a nice sound."
Mei-Ann played the piano. Her sister attempted the violin. "My sister is a visual artist at heart. She's not comfortable with people watching her create," Chen says. "She would show up at her lessons very grumpy. Then she started creating excuses so she wouldn't have to go to class. Like breaking strings." Mei-Ann was eventually presented with her sister's barely used violin, which she took to immediately. "It wasn't a struggle for me and has always been my instrument," she says.
Chen saw a conductor at work for the first time when she joined her school orchestra. "It was a lightbulb moment for me," she says, describing how amazed she was that one silent person could be responsible for so much sound. "This is when I saw the art of conducting as a form of communication," she says."I ran home and told my parents: 'Piano and violins are fun, but I really want to conduct!' I think they were afraid I was going to go down a path that's going to lead to a broken heart in the future. In Taiwan, even if you were a musician, you couldn't possibly learn conducting. It's not something you could go to school for."
Chen's parents wanted their gifted 10-year-old to be realistic. But the precocious musician decided to ignore her parents' words of caution and take matters into her own hands. "I would memorize my part so I could look up at the conductor," she explains. "He would look around the room and notice that I was the only one always looking up, so he thought I was his best student. He didn't know that I was trying to steal his craft.
"Life has many ups and downs and twists and turns," Chen says, before telling a story about how her parents tried to help her become a musician, then changed their minds. "[They] wanted to bring me to the bigger city, Taipei — we Taiwanese consider it as New York City. It has better [music] teachers and better schools." But when the time came to leave their daughter with relatives, her parents decided they couldn't do it. They asked her to come home and "become a normal kid." Chen, who didn't really want to be separated from her parents, agreed and returned home to Kaohsiung to pursue a more practical course of study.
"My parents thought they had given up their dream for me to be a musician," Chen says. Science classes were emphasized over art, and she impressed her teachers with her ability to memorize the "names of all the stones."
"I thought I was going to be an earth science major. Music was going to be a hobby," she says. Chen hadn't given up on her unrealistic dreams, but she wanted to please her parents. She was going to make an honest attempt to become a little more ordinary.
"Before this time I was doing music — loving music — as a way to please my parents," Chen says. "During this period no longer was music something that was expected of me. It became my escape; it became my own passion. My time. That's the most wonderful gift that my parents gave me by making that difficult decision."
Chen's life changed during her sophomore year in high school, when an American youth orchestra came to Kaohsiung, led by the Boston Philharmonic's founding conductor, Benjamin Zander. Chen's accompanist, convinced that her young friend was something special, convinced Zander to meet with Chen and listen to the 16-year-old girl play violin.
The only place quiet enough for Chen to audition was a closed bar in the hotel basement. "They expected a very technical musician. They saw a child who played from the heart, which was highly unusual in Asian culture," she says. She was offered a scholarship to study in America, and without hesitation, she accepted.
"I was young, I was brave," she says of her quick decision to travel thousands of miles to study music in a country where she barely spoke the language.
Chen bought her first conductor's score while on tour in Spain with Zander's youth orchestra. It was a miniature edition, small enough to hide away in her backpack. Crushing shyness prevented her from telling anybody that she wanted to stand in front of the orchestra. She didn't want anybody asking why she was studying a score. Her chance came when a friend told Zander that Chen was dying to lead the orchestra. At a sound check in Madrid, Zander pointed at Chen and told her to conduct the first movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.
There was no time to feel terrified. When Zander pointed, Chen ran up to the podium and started conducting.
"I knew the piece so well, and I think I just blew all my friends' minds away," she says. "Many came to me and encouraged me. They said, 'We think you have the talent.'"
A violinist, Chen says, always hears the melody. They may or may not notice what the violas are doing with the inner voice or what the cello is doing with the bass line. They are naturally focused on their own part. "But when I was standing on the podium, all of a sudden I felt my ears completely open up," Chen says, reliving her initial reaction, gesturing to suggest that her ears had become superhumanly large. "I might be looking like an imaginary monster," she says. "Because I feel like I'm responsible for the flute now, because the flute has to breathe and enter with the phrase. And now the viola has something ... ."
Eighteen years passed after her first taste of conducting and before her first job as a conductor. When she couldn't find work after college, Chen went back to school and took a double master's degree in violin and conducting. When she still couldn't attract any professional interest, she entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan and took on work as a teacher. Her schedule got tighter, until she realized a year had passed and she hadn't seen one live performance. She bought a ticket to a performance that she describes as nothing more than a "common school symphonic concert." But something in the music reminded her of being overpowered, age 7, by the music she'd heard in her parents' house.
"The amount of rejection letters I'd received was more than the number of notes I'd conducted," Chen says. In her struggle for survival, she'd forgotten what a privilege it was to play the masterpieces. "After that, my conducting was never the same," she says. "Every time I step on the podium now, whether it's a rehearsal or a concert, it's an opportunity for me to create something beautiful for everybody."
"The first note tells everyone what kind of artist you are."
— Mei-Ann Chen
to the MSO
First impressions mean a lot to Chen. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Memphis Symphony's first program of masterworks, which highlight the work of three Russians. Rimsky-Korsakov was chosen because his writing shows off the virtuosity of each instrument and section. Chen describes Scheherazade as "an incredible opportunity to hit the ground running and show the community what a great team" of musicians she has. "We don't have eight months to peak; we have to peak at our first concert," she says.
Tchaikovsky's "First Piano Concerto" is a fun and familiar touchstone that should be recognizable even to classical music novices. Shostakovich's Festive Overture is an explosion of joy as colorful as any fireworks display. It's an unusually celebratory piece by an artist who watched as his colleagues disappeared in the night because they created something the Soviet government didn't approve of.
"If it's done right, it signals the exuberance of the new chapter we have here at the Memphis Symphony Orchestra," Chen says, describing what she hopes will be a transformative performance for the symphony and for Memphis audiences."Many orchestras around the country are struggling to justify why symphony orchestras are indispensable to their community. But I can assure you when people come and experience transforming moments, it's easy to understand."
First impressions are something Chen does very well. Impressed by her resume and moved by her work, the Memphis Orchestral Society's board of directors voted unanimously to confirm her appointment to succeed retiring maestro David Loebel.
Jim Hirsch is still surprised by the impression Chen made in Chicago. "Founder replacement searches are famously difficult," he says. Considering the Sinfonietta's history and mission, he was certain that the next conductor would be African-American or Latino. The Sinfonietta is a racially diverse organization, and 40 percent of its audience comes from minority communities.
"To use the line from Jerry Maguire, Mei-Ann had us at 'hello.'" — Jim Hirsch
Hirsch, Fleur, and Chen are all focused on similar questions regarding the relevance and sustainability of regional orchestras. "How do we reach out to the community?" Chen asks.
She answers her own question by lavishing praise for the MSO, an organization responding to these questions "in ways only dreamed of by other orchestras." This, she says, is why she chose to make Memphis her artistic home for the next three years.
She was impressed by the symphony's relationship with the Stax Learning Academy and by "Leading from Every Chair," a corporate program that brings musicians and business leaders together to work on special projects. She was blown away by musician-driven initiatives like Opus One, which takes symphony players into unusual venues. "Opus One cracked the code for reaching a younger audience," she says. "During my interview, I had to ask if Memphis really even needed a conductor."
It does, says Fleur: "We have a three-year deal with Mei-Ann, and we're going to fight like heck to keep her." Chen, he says, is "the real deal."
The Paul & Linnea Bert Chamber Series opens with Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings and Stravinsky's romantic suite from the ballet Pulcinella on Friday, September 10th, at the Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center.
The First Tennessee Masterworks Series opens on Saturday, September 18th, with Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.
For additional information about tickets and seating, visit the orchestra's website at memphissymphony.org.