Mei-Ann Chen, Augustin Hadelich, Naples Philharmonic portend seriously good music

Mei-Ann Chen
Naples News

By Harriet Howard Heithaus

She had her doctorate in musical conductorship, and here she was, playing weddings and teaching Suzuki violin to children. It wasn't that Mei-Ann Chen didn't love teaching children. But she had walked on burning coals to become a conductor.

"I was working so hard to make ends meet I didn't have energy to come into a concert hall," she remembers. But one evening, she made it to a performance, arriving in time for the second half of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4.

"The tears ran down my face. It reminded me of the power music has. I didn't have any of that wonderful music in my life for a year and a half, and I had forgotten what an honor and a gift it is to be able to share that with others," Chen said. "I promised myself then and there: If I stand on that podium, I will conduct every piece as if it's my last."

For those who have not been to a concert the entire season, this is the one. Mei-Ann Chen will conduct the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday and Saturday, May 11-12, and signs are right for a hall-shaking experience.

The program is a heady one: a symphony cathartic to Chen, and the Brahms Violin Concerto, performed by German virtuoso Augustin Hadelich, who at age 15, after a fiery accident, was told he might never play again. In 2006, that same violinist won the prestigious International Violin Competition in Indianapolis.

"He and I have sort of intersecting life journeys," Chen observed. "For both of us, we have gone through times thinking we will never be able to follow our dreams. I have heard people tell me they have heard no one else play this violin concerto the way he has."

Leading change

Orchestras may say the same about Chen, whose conducting style the Portland Oregonian called "warm, expansive and full of energy."

"Anyone who has seen her conduct knows the passion she conveys," said one critic from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "Canny and intensely physical," observed the other.

Chen is music director for the Memphis Symphony, as well as recently having accepted the post of music director for the Chicago Sinfonietta. But she's not one who expects her skills alone to lure contemporary audiences.

"Our art form is already in crisis," she says. "We need to make our brand known in the community." She is ready to conduct straight concerts but has brought in enhancements, such as filling a darkened hall with astronomy videos to add visual stimulation to Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

"Everyone shows the artwork that inspired the music," Chen said.

She wanted a visual that stretched the boundaries of the music. So the Adler Planetarium in Chicago created a gallery of celestial footage for the performance. "We had a lot of first-timers to the symphony because they were curious. I told the team it's OK if not everybody thinks this is the greatest."

The approach to music presentation has to change, she said:

"It's not just 'Here's the piece — try to enjoy it as much as I do.' "

Watching the maestro

Chen has earned the right to be passionate. The Taiwan native had to fight her way out of her parents' dreams for her: a career as a violinist. But when, "as a shy 10-year-old," she saw an orchestra concert, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

"I saw this person on the podium making all this beautiful music from many people, and I thought how wonderful," she said.

Even when she excelled at violin, Chen would show up at student orchestra rehearsals with all her music memorized "so I could watch the conductor. I was the only one not buried in music."

And even when her stellar playing earned her a scholarship — on the spot — to Boston, Chen had her heart set on becoming a conductor. To please her parents, she studied violin. To follow her dream, she studied conducting, and graduated with a double master's degree from the New England Conservatory of Music.

"I was first person at New England to do such a double master. And still I could not get an audition opportunity. So I thought more degrees will help. It's a very Chinese thing," she said, laughing.

Chen earned her doctorates. But she would not win orchestra auditions until she took her manager's advice — "win an award" — and became the first woman to win the Malko Competition in 2005. Still solicitous of her parents' feelings, Chen did not even tell them she was in the competition.

They found out when news that a Taiwanese woman had won the international prize flashed around the world.

And now, busy

Since then, the offers have become more numerous. In fact, Chen is busy enough that she doesn't consider herself a candidate for the current open music director post with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra.

"But I love to have the opportunity to work with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra because I have always heard about the high level of quality of the orchestra — and how wonderful the city is," she said.

Not to mention that this is a dream program for her.

"I can't wait to do the Brahms' violin concerto. ... He didn't just write for the instrument. He wrote the best music he possibly could. But also to be conducting this with Augustin playing will make me feel I'm in heaven."

The Tchaikovsky Fourth has meanings for her on many different levels, but they arrive at a conclusion that Chen can relish from this position:

"It's fate. Tchaikovsky is writing about fate."