Mei-Ann Chen, who guest conducts the Phoenix Symphony this week, is living what she calls an impossible dream.
“I’ve wanted to be a conductor since I was 10 years old, playing in the orchestra for the first time as a shy violinist,” Chen says. “When I saw the conductor on the podium, this person, hopefully, doesn’t make too much sound but is connected to everyone in the room, and when he moved, it created the biggest sound. When I went home, I told my parents I wanted to be a conductor.”
Born and raised in Taiwan, Chen was studying piano and violin at the time “because my parents loved music and never had the chance themselves,” she says. “But I told them I really wanted to be a conductor because I saw that as a form of communication and I knew it was a calling,” she said.
Today she’s an acclaimed conductor who serves as music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta. Thrilling symphony crowds with her energetic approach with the baton, she was chosen in 2012 for the prestigious Helen M. Thompson Award by the League of American Orchestras.
“Some might think that I have too much energy on the podium,” she says. “But what I do is not for show. It may look entertaining to the audience, but this is the origin of why I conduct the way I conduct. No one would give me a chance to audition as a conductor, but I held onto my dream. In order to stay in this country, I taught about 40 beginners on piano and violin. ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’ I wasn’t conducting. I wasn’t performing. I had no prospects.”
Finally given the opportunity to conduct, she says, “I made a promise to myself that I would conduct like it was the last time I could make music. So that’s what I try to do every time I’m on the podium.”
Chen’s first appearance with the Phoenix Symphony was during the 2010-11 season.
“Chemistry is something you can’t really teach or create,” she says. “It’s either there or it isn’t. And I just remember on my first visit in Phoenix, this incredible feeling that the orchestra was willing to go wherever I tried to push them. It just clicked. And when that happens, I can tell you, I’m the happiest person on Earth.”
This week’s program includes Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 and An-Lun Huang’s “Saibei Dance,” a piece written during China’s Cultural Revolution as a celebration of the harvest season.
Chen has a special connection to “Saibei Dance,” which she has conducted many times.
“This is a piece that I have been championing since the Alabama Symphony introduced me to it,” she says. “It was written at the end of the Cultural Revolution, a 10-year period in China during which a lot of composers were in exile, including Mr. Huang. This was written in 1975, a year before the Cultural Revolution ended.
“‘Saibei’ means the area north of the Great Wall in China. So he was living amongst the farmers, not able to practice his art, not able to compose, and yet he was able to capture the annual harvest, which was probably the most joyful event of that dark period — because they’re celebrating that they have food, at least. And he really depicted the celebratory feel of such an occasion during such a difficult time in his own life and also for the country.”
That ties in nicely to the Elgar piece, Chen says, because that was the English composer’s response to World War I “as he was coming to terms with how the world was becoming while also going through a personal struggle in terms of his own health.
“For him to somehow, through all his life’s struggles, be able to come up with something as beautifully written and as moving as the Cello Concerto, oftentimes, when life doesn’t go the way we want, it’s a blessing in disguise,” Chen says. “And this composition represents that for me.”
The Dvorak piece, which debuted in 1885, may be less well-known than his celebrated New World Symphony. But to Chen’s ears, “a lot of the best Dvorak music is in the works that don’t have fancy titles. Not to say New World isn’t a great work. But No. 7 is a hidden jewel.”
“And he was also grasping the concept of nationalism in terms of Czech culture,” she continues. “It’s not so much, ‘OK, I’m going to put in the folk element here because I’m Czech.’ He was actually struggling with how can our nation come together against political oppression. And there’s melancholic yearning in the lower strings, in the minor key. One of my colleagues puts it beautifully. He said it’s the happiest minor-key music he has ever heard. You can hear the little bit of hope.”