She talks the talk and she makes the music, too.
Mei-Ann Chen, the Taiwan-born, American-trained
conductor, has a winning way with words and in interviews and podium
remarks expresses her passion for her art form and building programs and
Monday night, in her first Orchestra Hall concert
and season opener as the new music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta,
Chen, 38, showed that she is a vibrant and exacting musical leader as
Having sold out its Saturday program, the first
at its new suburban venue, the Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville, the
Sinfonietta brought in more than 1,000 ticketholders to its historic
downtown home Monday. A spirited opener of an arrangement by local
composer Joe Clark of “My Kind of Town” for the Kennedy-King Marching
Band and the Anima Singers of Greater Chicago and an enthusiastic
welcome from Chicago’s new culture commissioner, Michelle T. Boone,
kicked off both a successful artistic event and a festive evening.
Twenty-first century multiculturalism is global
and gender-conscious. That’s one of Chen’s mantras, and her program of
works by a Chinese, a pioneering African American, the world’s leading
film composer, an encore from her native Taiwan as well as Beethoven’s
Fifth and a distinguished black orchestra principal as guest soloist in
two of the concert’s pieces fleshed out her claim.
The atmospheric “Saibei Dance” by An-Lun Huang
and “The Angel of Formosa” by Tyzen Hsiao framed the concert and were
given brisk readings that kept them from being too romantic. The mixed,
largely African-American audience, with new contingents of Chinese and
Taiwanese families, seemed transfixed by the East meets West exoticism.
Chen, who also heads the Memphis Symphony, has
yet to make any instrumental appointments here. But more important, she
took the lid off the talented ensemble she’s inherited and helped the
players to deliver performances on a higher level than they’ve been able
to show in recent years before the retirement of the Sinfonietta’s
legendary and pioneering founder, Paul Freeman. The Beethoven sounded as
if this were an almost entirely new orchestra.
Harp soloist Ann Hobson Pilot brought history
and virtuosity to the stage in William Grant Still’s “Ennanga” (1956)
for harp, piano and string orchestra, rich with Ugandan themes and
inspiration, and in “On Willows and Birches,” the gentle but intricate
concerto written by film music titan and former Boston Pops music
director John Williams in 2009 to mark Hobson Pilot’s retirement after
40 years from the Pops and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where she
served as principal. She is a hypnotic advocate for an instrument
usually on the sidelines of the symphony orchestra.
Throughout, Chen displayed the taut rhythmic
drive and the crystal clarity that won her over with the group’s players
and search committee during the last two years. Opportunities for
additional interpretive depth will follow. The entire evening gave signs
of great things to come for this rare talent and orchestra and their
unique joint mission.
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