MUSICAL NOTES: LBSO Delights With Familiar Tunes

Mei-Ann Chen

I’m old school.

Or maybe just old.

Either way, the last Classics concert by the Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, although it consisted entirely of familiar standard repertoire and broke no new ground, was — to at least one set of ears — absolutely delightful.

Much of the wonderfulness of this concert can be credited to guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen. The Taiwanese conductor, who now leads the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta, is obviously destined for bigger and better things. That doesn’t include Long Beach, but we did get her for this one glorious night.

Any conductor who can make something special out of Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla” Overture has got to be some sort of genius. From the opening notes of this often played five-minute work, the audience was captivated by the sheer virtuosity of the musicianship and the sizzling energy that radiated from the podium and the stage. It was a touch faster than I’m used to hearing, and ten times more exciting.

Speaking of often played works, the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Sergei Rachmaninoff displayed more of Chen’s kinetic fire and firm authority, and added the considerable talents of young Korean pianist Joyce Yang. Once again, the energy never let up, so that the later, lyrical variations including the famous Eighteenth were a welcome relief without a loss of momentum. Yang exhibited a poetic sensibility and a dazzling technique perfectly suited to the hyper popular concerto, and the wildly enthusiastic audience demanded an encore. Earl Wild’s arrangement of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” (Yang has recorded a set of these arrangements) also was a precious little gem.

Chen perfectly gauged the long slow crescendo of this movement, and placed the extra brass in the balcony, to stunning effect at the climax. Respighi was a master orchestrator, and “The Pines of Rome” is his major accomplishment.

Mei-Ann Chen makes music with exuberant joy, and that joy communicates itself irresistibly to an audience. At the next symphony Classics in February, our new music director, Eckart Preu, will lead an all-French program.

He’s already got the gig, but Ms. Chen will be a hard act to follow.
Read the rest of the review here