Review: Memphis Symphony Orchestra Director Scores A Knockout

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

Mei-Ann Chen’s energy and savvy have been an inspiration to Memphis Symphony Orchestra audiences as well as the musicians. But this weekend, the orchestra’s music director and maestro outdid herself.

Saturday night’s Masterworks program at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts (repeated Sunday afternoon at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre) was a knockout for the MSO, particularly the rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Chen has always exhibited a high level of control, but she and the orchestra achieved a harmonic convergence of remarkable proportions. The Tchaikovsky has plenty going on — introspection, heroics, passion, quietude — and Chen stitched it together into one of the orchestra’s most cohesive interpretations.

In past performances, sections have not always played nicely together. But Saturday night, nobody was showing off and nobody was buried. Samuel Compton’s horn solo in the second movement was exquisitely played; in fact the entire work as played by a vivid MSO was touched by something supernal.

Tchaikovsky said his Fifth was a failure, but he might have changed his tune had he heard how Chen and the MSO did it.

In an abundance of goodness, the concert held even more glories. Augustin Hadelich seized the Brahms Violin Concerto and wrung extraordinary passion out of it with his considerable virtuosity.

Hadelich has soloed twice before with the IRIS Orchestra, once playing an underpowered Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the second time a terrific version of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4.

Saturday night he made the audience fall in love. The audience applauded after the first movement, which Memphis audiences rarely do. But it was a tribute to his energy, precision and involvement, particularly in the cadenza — his performance shone.

By the way, 2013 has been a good year for the Brahms Violin Concerto. Last month, Gil Shaham did a virtuoso performance with the IRIS Orchestra. That masterpiece is getting a good workout locally.

Hadelich came out for an encore, doing Paganini’s Caprice No. 9. Was Paganini evil or nuts? Many of his compositions are fraught with hazards, but the violinist who tames them wins big.

Hadelich won big.

The evening started with “Saibei Dance” by An-Lun Huang, a brisk, uncomplicated blend of Chinese and Western influences that sounded just about right as a soundtrack for a Chinese Western. Yee-haw, and kudos to Chen, Hadelich and the MSO.