Chen has Maestro 'Cinderella story'

Mei-Ann Chen
Cincinnati Enquirer

By Mary Ellyn Hutton

Just a few years ago, Mei-Ann Chen was not well-known in the conducting world. But a combination of tenacity and help from people who believed in her resulted in what she calls her “Cinderella story.”

“My musical journey is my life journey, how conducting has brought me to visit places and to meet people I never thought would be possible growing up in Taiwan,” she said.

The Taiwan-born conductor made a big impression in Music Hall last season, when she stepped in on just a few days notice to lead Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sheherazade” with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and she did it from memory. Now the music director of the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta, she will make her Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut in May.

Chen returns to Cincinnati this week for a concert that includes a world premiere of “Poem from a Vanished Time” by Zhou Tian, Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto for Orchestra” and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with piano legend André Watts. She spoke from Memphis, where she is in her third year as music director of the Memphis Symphony.

Question: What attracted you to music as you were growing up in Kaohsiung, Taiwan?

Answer: I started music because my parents loved music and never had the chance as they were growing up. They put their musical dreams on my older sister and me. I ended up entertaining my parents on violin and piano. But for me, a life-changing moment came when I played in an orchestra for the first time at age 10. I saw this person on the podium, and when he moved, he helped to create this incredible sound. I ran home very excited and told my parents that I wanted to be a conductor.

I saw the art of conducting as a form of communication. I was very shy, and thought if I couldn’t do it through words, I could do it through body language. My parents tried to find me a teacher, but it wasn’t something you could study in that generation. But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I would show up in rehearsals with my violin part memorized, and I fixed my eyes on the conductor. He did not know I was trying to steal his craft at age 10.

Q: When did you know you’d be able to follow your dream?

A: An American youth orchestra affiliated with the New England Conservatory led by Benjamin Zander was touring Asian countries the summer I was 16. I went to the performance, and my piano accompanist took me backstage to meet the conductor. She asked him, “Would you have time to hear this little girl play the violin?” He said I played from the heart and offered me a scholarship on the spot to study violin in Boston. My parents thought I was going to become a concert violinist, but deep down I knew I was coming to America so I can fulfill my dream of becoming a conductor.

Q: You were the first woman to win the Malko Competition for Young Conductors. For women, it’s been difficult to break into conducting. What has it been like for you?

A: It was a little of a Cinderella story. I couldn’t get on the radar, and I didn’t have a manager. I had to go through a conducting program sponsored by the League of American Orchestras. In 2006, I won another competition. To win first prize out of 240 applicants from 40 countries was the biggest surprise of my life.

It led to an audition with the Atlanta Symphony. For a woman conductor, there’s no guarantee, and very few have gone to the top. But I thought perhaps I could make an impact. I was the last of six finalists, the only woman, and here I was in front of the Atlanta Symphony, my last chance of trying to see if I could go anywhere.

I will never forget (music director) Robert Spano inviting me to the conductor’s suite after that evening’s performance. “Mei-Ann,” he said, “America needs your kind of conductor. We want you to be our assistant conductor.” So that was the beginning of my unbelievable journey.

Q: What inspires you about conducting?

A: Conducting is about being the music, not beating the music. I am a channel for the composer’s message to come through, to inspire the musicians to create sound as I envision what the composer wanted to convey.