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VOL. 125 | NO. 47 | Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chen’s Leadership Brings Immediate Boost to MSO

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

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The Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s new music director is tasked with more than just conducting. Photo: Courtesy of the Memphis Symphony

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) announced the selection of its new music director in late February, a move that raised the group’s spirits and potentially its financial prospects.

The orchestra’s leadership said the boost in morale could not have come at a better time.

“She has this infectious enthusiasm, and on the podium that energy really pulls the audience in,” said Ryan Fleur, president and CEO of MSO, referring to Mei-Ann Chen, the 36-year-old assistant conductor for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Portland Youth Symphony, who was unanimously selected by a search committee to lead the group after a two-year search.

But in her new role, Chen will have to pull in the audience in more ways than one. Her appointment comes a year after MSO made drastic cuts to its budget and began exploring its own viability in the community.

Demanding job

Fleur said Chen will be a rallying point for the orchestra to re-establish itself in the community with new programs, a new identity, and hopefully, new donations.

“We’ve spent the last three years aggressively reinventing who we are as an organization,” Fleur said. “Our operation is 30 percent smaller than last year, but we didn’t just take a haircut across the board. We asked, “What’s the value of being an orchestra in Memphis?’”

In 2008, recession-stricken donors, many of whom made pledges and gifts to the orchestra based off stock dividends, were unable to keep their pledges when the dividends depleted.

MSO faced a serious shortfall in the orchestra’s budget and in February 2009, five administrative staff members were laid off.

“That shook the whole organization,” Fleur said. “The organization was at its lowest morale in that period. But I think the search (for a new music director) has really galvanized the organization and right now morale is as high as it’s ever been.”

At Chen’s first press conference, held in late February at The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, staff members passed out buttons that read, “Mei-Ann is Memphis,” clearly hoping the conductor, who as a violinist in a youth orchestra in Taiwan memorized all of her music so she could look up and study the conductor’s movements, will become the new symbol of rebirth.

“She will not go out and ask anyone for a penny, but she certainly will be coming along with me and with board members and talking about her vision,” Fleur said.

Chen will have some new community offerings to talk about as well.

‘Curiosity factor’

Among MSO’s new programs, designed to increase community outreach and earn new streams of revenue, is one called “Family Tunes and Tales,” in which small ensembles of musicians perform in workshops in 11 public libraries throughout Shelby County.

Librarians will read children’s books along with the music, and members of the Junior League of Memphis will lead arts and crafts projects related to the music and books.

The series continues through April 17 and is sponsored by the First Tennessee Foundation.

MSO gave its first “Opus One” performance Thursday, during which a large ensemble from the orchestra played in the lobby of One Commerce Square without a conductor.

Future performances will be held in other alternative venues such as warehouse spaces. The ensemble plays a mixture of classical works, folk and jazz. The next performance is scheduled for May 20.

Last year, MSO began a weekly mentoring program at the Soulsville Charter School and a corporate talent retention program incorporating leadership skills and music for some of Memphis’ larger employers.

MSO’s overall budget is $3.5 million, two-thirds of which comes from grants and private donations. The orchestra has just more than 70 members, 36 of which are full-time employees.

Dan Poag, who served as chairman of the board during the search for a new conductor, said MSO has re-examined its use of volunteers, including board members.

“We recently amended our bylaws to reflect some changes in the organization that we all anticipate will be more efficient,” Poag said.

But Fleur said the orchestra’s primary weapon against the recession is Chen.

“We do anticipate that we’ll see both higher subscription sales and walk-up sales next year,” he said. “A certain part of that bump is permanent, and part of it is the curiosity factor.”

MSO’s subscriptions go on sale at the end of March.

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