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Mei-Ann Chen and Tchaikovsky, together again

The energetic conductor will lead the Pasadena Symphony in a performance of the Fifth Symphony, which has special meaning for the leader of orchestras in Memphis and Chicago.

October 26, 2011|By Jon W. Sparks, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Conductor Mei-Ann Chen is introduced to the Chicago Sinfonietta during a concert in August.
Conductor Mei-Ann Chen is introduced to the Chicago Sinfonietta during… (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago…)

Reporting from Memphis, Tenn. — Tchaikovsky was bedeviled and obsessed by fate, although being a 19th century Russian composer, he faced it down in grand, symphonic fashion.

The idea of "the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness," as he put it, infuses his latter symphonies, says Mei-Ann Chen, who will guest-conduct his Fifth Symphony on Saturday with the Pasadena Symphony.

Chen brings with her an acute awareness of fate in the composer's life as well as in her own.

In less than a decade, she has accumulated honors and appointments that affirm her talent and determination, although she remains modest about her achievements and sometimes seems boggled by it all. Chen recently began her second season as music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and her first season leading the Chicago Sinfonietta. She is guest-conducting about 20 orchestras this year and making appearances in support of those engagements with her trademark enthusiasm.

It is a demanding schedule, but Chen is fine with that, since, as she jokes just a little, "I don't have a real life outside my work." But she wouldn't think of complaining. "This is a dream come true. When I'm on the podium making music, that's how I communicate with so many people at the highest level."

She particularly loves Tchaikovsky's Fifth as a way to communicate, because it has served her so well. In 2005, she was the first woman to win the highly regarded Malko international conductors competition in Denmark. In the finals, she had to draw for the Tchaikovsky she'd have to conduct, but of the three Tchaikovsky symphonies on the list, Chen had only ever conducted the Fifth.

As she got ready to draw her assignment for the Malko, she thought back to being a shy, 10-year-old violinist in Taiwan fascinated by conductors but aware that girls weren't really part of that world. Still, that girl memorized her music so she could watch the conductor and learn. And she remained diligent. Chen was the first student at New England Conservatory to receive simultaneous master's degrees in violin and conducting.

But out of school, it was slow going. "I couldn't get invited to audition," she says of her search for conducting work. Eventually she was named music director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic in Oregonand then an invitation to the Malko. News stations in Portland, Ore., were reporting on her progress in Denmark through the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals.

And then fate spoke.

"If I had drawn the Fourth or Sixth symphonies, I don't think I would have won the competition," Chen says. But she drew the Fifth, forged ahead and won the competition.

Chen, a 38-year-old Taiwanese American conductor, has found that fate has been sweeter for her. When she drew the Fifth, she forged ahead, inspired, and won the competition.

And, she says, that opened doors in a way she never thought possible.

She received appointments assistant-conducting the Oregon, Baltimore and Atlanta symphonies before taking her current positions in Memphis and Chicago.

But it was that Malko prize that first got the attention of the Pasadena Symphony.

Paul Jan Zdunek, chief executive of the Pasadena Symphony Assn., says that, after that group saw her competition video, "we went to see her in Orange County last year and watched her work with the orchestra. She has an extraordinary presence on the podium and is very passionate about her work."

Zdunek says that Chen has also embraced visiting schools and civic groups. "We have her week jampacked, but it doesn't seem to be a burden. It seems part of her DNA, which makes it that much more delightful for the community."

Also on Saturday's program is Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto with guest soloist James Ehnes. The violinist has won several Juno Awards and a Grammy for a 2006 album on which the Korngold concerto appears.

Chen sees the hand of fate at work here as well. As it happens, Chen worked with members of Korngold's family when she was in Portland. Korngold came to Hollywood from his native Austria in 1934 and stayed as Nazi influence spread through Europe. Academy Award aficionados can tell you that Korngold's scores won two Oscars in the 1930s, and he continued to work in film, vowing not to write for the concert hall until the war was over.

His first postwar piece was the Violin Concerto, championed by Jascha Heifetz. Chen says that, as far as she knows, it was the first time a soloist asked the composer to make the piece more difficult. Korngold obliged.

The composer's granddaughter, Katy Korngold Hubbard, and her husband, John Hubbard, had played with the Pasadena Symphony but moved from Hollywood to Portland to raise their children — and make the Chen connection. John Hubbard conducted the youngest string ensemble of the Portland Youth Philharmonic led by Chen.

"It's been my dream to do the Korngold Violin Concerto with the Hubbards in attendance, and that's happening," Chen says. "They're coming to Pasadena for the concert, and it's rare to have this kind of connection where I actually know the family of the composer."

The third piece on the program is An-Lun Huang's "Saibei Dance" (from Saibei Suite No. 2), written during China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. It's one of Chen's favorites, and she is making plans to conduct the first recording of the work.

"A lot of artists were in exile in camps or farmers," Chen says, "and Huang had been forced into farming at the time." The piece is a medley of traditional songs — although with some Western structure — that emerged from the annual harvest festival celebration. It is an optimistic piece even though written during a dark time in Huang's life. The composer eventually moved to Toronto to study music, and he lives there today.

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