Classical music: A hit in 2009, Mei-Ann Chen returns to Fort Worth Symphony

Mei-Ann Chen
Dallas News

By Scott Cantrell

When Mei-Ann Chen first conducted the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, in 2009, the musicians responded with striking finesse — and suppleness and excitement. In an age of so many time-beaters on orchestra podiums, here was a distinctive talent, a rare balance of heart and head.

This week, Chen is back, conducting Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture; the Schumann Piano Concerto, with pianist Markus Groh; and the Franck D-minor Symphony.

“It was almost love at first sight,” Chen says of working with the Fort Worth orchestra. “They got what I wanted to do, and there was such incredible chemistry.”

Ebullient on the podium, Chen is no less so on the phone from her office at the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, where she’s in her second season as music director. She’s also music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, an enterprising ensemble founded to expand opportunities for minority classical musicians and composers. After 23 years in the U.S., the native of Taiwan speaks English fluently and briskly, with only a hint of an accent.

Women remain a tiny minority on orchestra podiums, and rarer still is the Asian female conductor. After completing a double master’s degree in violin and conducting at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Chen says, “I was shocked that I could not get invited to any audition, of any type — even educational positions.”

Now, she says, “If you look at the numbers of female conducting students coming up, my goodness, I think we’re going to see a wave of women conductors.”

Urged on by music-loving parents, Chen began early study of the violin. What changed her life was playing in an orchestra for the first time at age 10.

“I was so excited by how the conductor connected to people,” she says. “I ran home and told my parents I wanted to be a conductor. They were worried, because it wasn’t something that they imagined me to do. That was not even something possible for a woman then. But I would memorize my music so I could watch the conductor all the time.”

She entered college as a more sensible earth-sciences major. But when the orchestra from the New England Conservatory played in Taipei, she got a violin audition with the conductor, Benjamin Zander. The only quiet place they could find was a closed basement bar, and on the spot, Zander offered her a scholarship to study violin at the conservatory.

“Mr. Zander says, ‘I discovered Mei-Ann in a bar,’” she says with a chuckle.

After getting that double master’s degree but no conducting auditions, she figured a doctorate would open more opportunities in academia. So she went on to earn one in conducting from the University of Michigan, where she studied with Kenneth Kiesler.

In 2002 she finally landed her first conducting job with the Portland (Ore.) Youth Philharmonic, and then held assistantships with the Oregon, Atlanta and Baltimore symphony orchestras. After conducting the Memphis Symphony in a showcase for up-and-coming conductors, sponsored by the League of American Orchestras, she was offered the job of music director.

“We’ve started a lot of innovative programs to try to create bonds with the community,” she says of the Memphis orchestra. “We’ve also started a groundbreaking conducting competition, with no age limit whatever. If you can conduct and connect with the orchestra, you’ve got a subscription-series debut.

“As I had difficulties to come this far, perhaps I can make it easier for others to come — to help the system to identify talents more easily and help them develop their careers.”