By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in Pasadena Scene magazine.
Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, Mei-Ann Chen, conductor; James Ehnes, violin
Sat., Oct. 29, 2011; 2 and 8 p.m.
Huang: Saibei Dance; Korngold: Violin Concerto; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Ambassador Auditorium, 300 W. Green St., Pasadena
Tickets: $25-$100. Senior rush tickets ($15) for 2 p.m. concert only. Student rush tickets and “Sound Check” cards also available.
Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
Rising star Mei-Ann Chen will conduct the Pasadena Symphony on Oct. 29, the opening program in the PSO’s season at Ambassador Auditorium.
Now into its second season without a music director, the Pasadena Symphony will once again be led in four of its five concerts by a parade of relatively unknown guest conductors. Consequently, audiences and musicians have learned to approach each program with a spirit of investigative adventure, wondering what sort of magic might come from each guest conductor.
Naturally in the back of many people’s minds is an unvoiced thought: “Will this guest be the PSO’s next music director?” (For the record, management continues to maintain that the orchestra is happy with the current plan of using guest conductors and is not actively seeking anyone to replace Jorge Mester as its next music director. James DePreist continues to act as music advisor and will lead the final concert this season).
However, the opening concerts for the PSO’s 2011-2012 season on Oct. 29 may turn out to be one of those events that people will one day look back and remember, “I was there.” That’s because the guest conductor will be Mei-Ann Chen, a 38-year-old, Taiwan-born dynamo who is one of the fastest-rising stars in the international conducting firmament.
That ascension was a long time getting off the launching pad. Although Chen is considerably older than wunderkind maestros such as Gustavo Dudamel, she considers herself a “baby” in the conducting world. She can still remember a time when, after receiving her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting from the University of Michigan she “received more rejection letters from orchestras than the number of notes I had conducted professionally,” as she notes wryly.
Even after Chen in 2005 became the first woman to win Denmark’s prestigious Malko conducting competition, opportunities were initially scarce. Eventually, however, doors started to crack open. Thanks to a fellowship from the League of American Orchestras, Chen (she has lived in the U.S. since 1989) completed successful assistant conductor stints with the Oregon, Atlanta and Baltimore symphonies. Those led to her first major appointment last year, when she became music director of the Memphis Symphony.
This year she also took the reins at the Chicago Sinfonietta, an orchestra similar to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in size and its need to define itself outside the orbit of one of the world’s great orchestras, the Chicago Symphony. Chen’s first concerts with her Chicago ensemble elicited rave reviews from music critics at the city’s two largest papers, John von Rein (LINK) and Andrew Patner (LINK).
In addition to these two significant leadership positions (she spends four weeks in Chicago and 12 in Memphis) Chen now has numerous guest-conducting requests beginning to flood in to her. She accepts about 20 each year.
“I feel very fortunate because I’m at a point where I have to pick and choose concerts to conduct,” says Chen. “The bad side is that unfortunately I have to turn down some requests for return appearances, which I hate to do because I don’t like disappointing an orchestra that gave me a chance and I like to maintain relationships with orchestras and their musicians.”
One of the invites she did choose was from the Pasadena Symphony. “They were interested early on,” remembers Chen, “and came to see and hear me conduct with the Pacific Symphony in Orange County last June,” a concert that earned a stellar review from Orange County Register Music Critic Timothy Mangan (HERE).
However, what really sold Chen on making the trip to the Crown City was the program, which she had a hand in creating.
The evening will open with the Saibei Dance (from Saibei Dance Suite No. 2) by An-Lun Huang, who was born in China but lives in Toronto. “He wrote during China’s Cultural Revolution [1966-1976],” explains Chen, “and, like thousands of people, was — because he was an artist — exiled to a farm/labor camp north of the Great Wall [Saibei means North]. One day each year, the residents in the community would put aside their struggles to celebrate the harvest, which in the midst of privation at leave gave them food. This piece celebrates that day.
“You’d think that being born in Taiwan that I’d know this piece,” continues Chen, “but it wasn’t until the Alabama Symphony decided to do a multicultural festival last year that I first conducted it. More importantly, it was also the first piece that I ever conducted with the Chicago Sinfonietta and it literally changed the entire search process there. Within five minutes, the musicians and I had fallen in love with each other and, even though I was a real long shot to replace Paul Freeman, [the Sinfonietta’s founding music director, who was retiring after 24 years], I was chosen. I think those first few minutes with this piece played a huge role in that decision and in my life.” Later in the year, she also conducted the piece during her Austria debut.
The middle work on the PSO program will be Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto, with James Ehnes (right) as the soloist. “Korngold’s granddaughter, Katy Korngold Hubbard, got me into his music,” recalls Chen. “Korngold was sort of a genius but was one of those who got caught up in the Nazi Germany era. There were people in Europe at the time who believed that Korngold would become the next Mahler or Mozart.”
Korngold eventually fled to California where he gained fame for his motion picture scores; he won an Oscar for the score to The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. He also wrote the 1936 score for Anthony Adverse that also won the Oscar, although in those days the Academy presented the award to the music department head of the studio that produced the movie, not the composer. Korngold was also nominated for two other Oscars. Equally important, Korngold’s lush, romantic writing style paved the way for composers such as John Williams.
Korngold vowed never to write symphonic music until Hitler was defeated. With the end of World War II, he once again concentrated on music for the concert stage and the Violin Concerto, written in 1945, was his first effort in this “new life.” Jascha Heifetz premiered the concerto in 1947 with the St. Louis Symphony, but although Heifetz championed the piece but for decades, Korngold’s association with film music clouded his “classical” reputation with “purists.”
In recent years, Ehnes has become the new champion of the concerto. His recording (LINK) of the Korngold, Walton and Barber violin concertos, with Bramwell Tovey conducting the Vancouver Symphony, won the 2008 Grammy and Juno awards.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the concluding work on the PSO program, has a special place in Chen’s heart because it was the symphony she conducted when she won the Malko Competition. “There were 242 competitors from 40 countries,” remembers Chen, “and I had to be the longest of long shots. Some conductors had lots of experience conducting in Europe — one was a protégé of Valery Gergiev — and here I was, music director of a youth orchestra in a city (Portland, Ore.) that many people didn’t even know existed.”
Winning Malko eventually changed Chen’s life but the passion to conduct has been her goal since she was age 10. “I grew up in Taiwan as a very shy child,” she recounts. “At age 10, I became a violinist in an orchestra and saw my first conductor on the podium. I was hooked; I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do with my life. There’s a tremendous sense of power when you’re conducting because you’re trying to galvanize all of the separate energies on stage into one energy that can burst forth through the music.”
That sense of energy bursting forth is a recurrent theme in audience and critics’ reaction to her concerts. Andrew Patner in the Chicago Sun-Times called her “a rare talent.” Reviewing her inaugural concert as the Chicago Sinfonietta’s music director last month, John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “Chen … is a musician for whom ‘dynamic’ and ‘electric’ seem altogether too limiting. Her entire body is a bundle of podium energy; her keen ear and sharp eyes miss nothing. Thanks to her clear beat and articulate gestures, orchestral musicians pick up at once on her interpretive ideas, sending them out to the listener with much the same immediacy of effect.”
Now that Chen has gained a firm foothold in the conducting fraternity (which still includes very few women — JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginla Symphony, and Marin Alsop, who heads the Baltimore Symphony, are the two most prominent), she’s eager to pave the way for future conductors, both female and male.
One way she did that came earlier this year. Last January a guest conductor with the Memphis Symphony cancelled an October concert. “Rather than just find a substitute, I said to the orchestra and the musicians, ‘let’s do something really radical — let’s hold a conducting competition, instead.’ ” she explains.
The result was a whirlwind: decision in January, brochures distributed in February, entries in by March, preliminary rounds in April, finals in May. Despite the short notice, 236 people from 30 countries entered, in part because the jury included some significant people both in terms of musicianship and potential career-building opportunities. Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony and newly named head of the Aspen Music Festival, headed the jury, which included Anthony Fogg, artistic administrator of the Boston Symphony and the Tanglewood Festival, and Aaron Jay Kernis, Pulitzer-prize winning composer and professor at the Yale School of Music.
There was no age limit (nearly all competitions have either an upper or lower age limit, or both) and the first-prize winner was 40-year-old Ken Lam, who set aside a law career to pursue his love of music and conducting. Lam and the other two prize-winners will conduct a Memphis Symphony concert in October while Chen is in Pasadena.
“I’ve had so many people who have helped me during the past few years, “ says Chen. “As I grow more successful and come more into a position of power, I cannot but help others who are coming after me. It’s my time to turn the tables around.”
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.