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VOL. 125 | NO. 177 | Monday, September 13, 2010

Chen’s MSO Debut an Ode to Russian Masters

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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Mei-Ann Chen will make her Memphis Symphony Orchestra music director debut Sept. 18. The performance will spotlight Russian composers.
Photo: Courtesy of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra

The czars won’t be brought to their knees, nor will the proletariat rise in arms, but the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s opening First Tennessee Masterworks concert at the Cannon Center for the Arts Sept. 18 is very much a revolution in other ways.

Mei-Ann Chen will make her debut as MSO music director with fanfare and the showcasing of various sections of the orchestra.

“When I was looking at my first season, I knew that what I put in the first concert will signal a message of some sort about what my tenure in Memphis will be,” said Chen.

Chen replaces Maestro David Loebel after a one-year search and selection process that ended early this year. Chen has conducted the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and she has served as music director for the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra.

“Even though I could program almost anything and people will come to see it, I selected Russian repertoire because so many of the pieces that showcase the virtuosity and color and our range of tones in our repertoire were written by the Russians,” she said.

The program will begin with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture in A Major, a bright, brassy piece written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917.

“It’s so celebratory, I thought, ‘Why not begin my season that way?’” said Chen. “I don’t want a revolution in the literal sense, but it is a new era in terms of the transforming moments we will provide on stage.”

Chen explained that she became aware of the beauty of Shostakovich’s music later in her career, but that it became very personal to her after sharing a conducting engagement with a colleague who had known Shostakovich.

“What is very powerful about his pieces is this incredible irony he was struggling with,” said Chen. “He was constantly living in fear that someone will knock on his door and take him away like many of his colleagues. At the same time, he wants to show his disapproval of the regime.”

The piece begins with a brass fanfare before the main themes of the piece are tossed back and forth between the winds, strings and horns.

“A lot of people play this at outdoor concerts, or concerts that are not as big or serious (as the Masterworks),” said Chen. “But I picked this as my first piece of my first big concert here.”

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor follows with the Memphis debut of pianist Markus Groh from Berlin whose performances of Liszt concertos have won him wide acclaim.

“I’m bringing in an artist who is on his way to becoming a really big name in the piano world,” said Chen. “He made his debut with the Cleveland orchestra and within two weeks, there were 12 orchestras engaging him.

“I wanted to jump in there before he becomes the Yo-Yo Ma of the piano world and becomes impossible to get.”

The concert rounds out with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite of 1888: “Scheherazade,” based on tales from “The Arabian Nights.”

“I wanted the community to see every section and lots of principals at their best,” said Chen. “‘Scheherazade’ naturally comes to mind. It is one of the pieces that are constantly required in national orchestral auditions. It’s a fun test because we have to hit the ground running.”

Chen’s evening will begin a little early with a concert spotlight beginning at 7:15 p.m. on the west mezzanine of the Cannon Center including discussion of the program.

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