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VOL. 125 | NO. 44 | Friday, March 5, 2010

Chen Comes ‘Full Circle’ As Symphony’s New Conductor

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

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“ It’s an incredible experience knowing that there’s a city in America that’s full of music.”

– Mei-Ann Chen

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra officially handed the baton to its fourth music director Feb. 22 in a brief welcome assembly of musicians, arts patrons and local government leaders at The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.

Mei-Ann Chen, 36, was selected over three other conductors to replace Maestro David Loebel, who announced his pending retirement in 2008.

Chen’s journey to Memphis as a distinguished conductor spans several thousand miles and completes a dream that began for her at age 7.

“I was a very quiet child and when I went to my first orchestra rehearsal, it was a light bulb moment for me,” said Chen. “I saw this person on the podium not making any sound, yet connecting with everybody in the room to make a big sound.

“I went home so excited. I told my parents that’s what I want to do for life. That’s my form of communication.”

Sights and sounds

Chen was born in the second largest city in Taiwan, where she and her older sister played concerts on piano and violin, respectively, for their parents.

Chen’s older sister, who later excelled in painting, was uncomfortable with the violin and gladly handed it down to Chen.

Studying music meant leaving her home and moving to Taipei to live with her aunt, something Chen’s parents could not handle emotionally, so Chen studied academic subjects like earth sciences and served as assistant conductor of her school’s chorus until her big break came in her sophomore year.

After attending a concert of an American youth symphony on tour in Asia, Chen was granted an unscheduled violin audition and awarded a full scholarship on the spot.

But she knew in her heart that she was coming to America to study conducting, not violin.

Chen moved to Boston in 1989 and went on to earn a doctor of musical arts degree in conducting from the University of Michigan and double masters’ degrees in violin and conducting from the New England Conservatory.

She was selected by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra over three other candidates, Thomas Wilkins of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra, Alastair Willis, formerly of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and Robert Moody of the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra. All of them auditioned for the position by performing with the Memphis Symphony during the current season.

A 12-member search committee led by MSO board member Paul Bert chose Chen unanimously.

Deep creative vein

Chen has only been to Memphis on two other occasions since 2007, both associated with the audition process and for no more than three days at a time, but said the warmth of the people deeply impressed her.

“I sense such a vibrancy and creativity in the city,” said Chen. “Conducting for me is about connecting to people and that’s what drew me to Memphis in the first place. It’s an incredible experience knowing that there’s a city in America that’s full of music.”

While at the University of Michigan, Chen took a class in popular American music to help familiarize herself with American musical culture, something she said is valuable, since she will be relocating to one of the capitals of American music.

“(Memphis) is a place of music,” said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who attended Chen’s presentation and handed her a baton delivered by a FedEx delivery person.

“It is perhaps the most musical city in the entirety of the United States. It is in our very fiber, it is in our very existence. We are so excited to see where you will take us.”

Interim county Mayor Joe Ford gave his well wishes too.

“As a father of a beautiful daughter, I pay a close attention to the progress that women are making across our community,” Ford said.

‘Full circle’

With her new baton in hand, Chen spelled out some of her goals for the 2010-2011 season, which will be the first of three in her contract.

“I feel like I should be conducting now,” Chen told the audience.

Chen is concluding her current season as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and finishing a one-year appointment as assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony.

She will also guest conduct 18 major symphony orchestras across the country this year, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In her first season, Chen will conduct 10 weeks of concerts including the First Tennessee Masterworks Series, the Memphis Symphony Pops and the Paul & Linnea Bert Chamber Series.

The remaining two years of her contract will include 12 weeks of conducting.

Chen gave highlights of the 2010-2011 Masterworks season, which will begin with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherezade.” She said it was chosen because it highlights all sections of the orchestra individually.

The season will end with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor “Choral,” sometimes called the “Ode to Joy,” chosen for its universality.

Celebrity violinist Joshua Bell will make a guest performance at a subscribers-only concert on May 12, 2011, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

Loebel was originally contracted for 10 years but agreed to remain as music director through the end of the search process. He has accepted a position with the New England Conservatory and will perform his final concert, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” with the Memphis Symphony on May 1 at the Cannon Center.

“Life has sort of come a full circle for me,” said Chen. “I didn’t know that I was going to start my career in the South. I absolutely love the warmth of the people and the genuine way people handle themselves.”

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