Symphony orchestras across the U.S. are fighting for the lives and scratching for community support. In this environment, Memphis is lucky to have a new conductor who is injecting new energy into our symphony orchestra and who seems already to understand the Memphis vibe and how it can be synthesized with the orchestra.
Here’s a profile from the Hyde Family Foundations website:
There may be pressure in being called “one of the most highly praised conducting talents of her generation,” but it doesn’t show with Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, 37-year-old Mei-Ann Chen.
After all, there is a sense of destiny in the life’s journey that brought her infectious conducting style from Taiwan to the Memphis conducting podium. Best of all, she selected Memphis from a number of intriguing choices for a climbing star where the sky is the limit.
Most of her knowledge about Memphis came from a University of Michigan class, “American Pop Music History,” and in her reliance on FedEx. “I really thank FedEx for playing an important role in my career,” she said. “When I applied for an important opportunity, I only trusted FedEx and I always saw Memphis when I tracked what I was sending.”
“It is destiny,” she said. “There is a purpose for my gift. I came to Memphis to make a difference. I wanted to take what I learned and go to a smaller city and give back in the same way that people gave me opportunities along the way.”
These are the people who she calls “her angels,” and it’s easy to see her any other way as she takes up the baton for our city’s orchestra. She’s already found some special people in Memphis, including Hyde Family Foundations. “They make every day in Memphis so hopeful,” the maestro said. “I appreciate that we are important to the Hyde Foundation.”
She has injected new energy, enthusiasm, and joyfulness into the orchestra, reflecting qualities that she brings to her 12-hour work day. A typical day recently included a keynote speech to a breakfast meeting of the Greater Memphis Chamber, meetings in the symphony office, a business lunch, a meeting with the new assistant director, a staff member’s birthday party, a phone interview, more meetings, and finally a visit to the funky rock venue, the Hi-Tone, to show her support for Opus One, the conductor-less concerts organized by orchestra members.
The Opus One concert, “Handel, Hendrix, and Harlan T. Bobo,” was just the kind of nontraditional approach that Chen enjoys and encourages. After all, there is nothing traditional about the path that took her from Taiwan to become a conductor in the U.S. In her first concert, she surprised the audience with a marching band and the next one featured 50 children from the Campus School singing “Simple Gifts,” the Shaker song made famous in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.
It’s the sort of jubilant musical embrace that she brings to every concert, not to mention to her life as a Memphian. She moved here in August, and although “it didn’t require me to move to Memphis, to be an effective music director, I have to be committed. I really wanted to know the city.” In addition to serving as the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s fourth music director, she will also serve as the Chicago Sinfonietta’s music director, beginning in its 2011-12 season.
In the current Memphis Symphony Orchestra season, she will conduct 11 weeks of concerns and 12 weeks in the other two years of her three-year contract. Last year, she was guest conductor for 18 high-profile world orchestras.
Prior to accepting the job in Memphis, she was assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, assistant conductor at the Atlanta Symphony from 2007-9, and prior to that, she was the widely celebrated leader of Portland Youth Symphony for five years. Despite the recognition, she not only breaks the glass ceiling as one of the small number of women conductors but as one of the handful of conductors from a youth symphony background.
“As I pushed for them (youth symphony) to find their voice, they pushed me to find my calling,” Maestro Chen said. “I could stay comfortable there or I could walk through the door where women are a minority.” In addition, her musicality is rare in Asian culture where technical proficiency overrides personal interpretation and passion, she said.
As a 10-year-old violinist, she saw the person on the podium and a light bulb went off. “I told my parents that I wanted to be a conductor,” she said. “They discouraged me, but I would memorize my music so when I went to a concert, I could watch the conductor closely to steal his craft.”
When she was 16 years old, her adult accompanist took her to meet conductor Benjamin Zander and the next day, in the quietest place they could find – a hotel bar – she auditioned and joined his Youth Orchestra of the Americas, living in the U.S. since 1989.
The rest is history, which brings us to October 26, 2010, when Maestro Chen triumphantly conducted the New England Conservatory in Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus,which had just premiered in Memphis and is now making its way to 35 orchestras around the country, each time mentioning the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
“I never knew how proud I would be to be call myself an American musician,” she said. She also is in a line of great Memphis musicians, and because of her distinctiveness, her innovation, and her ability to see things in new ways, she is the perfect model for an emerging leader in Memphis.