Spirited maestra Chen launches orchestra's new season, new era

September 27, 2011
Chicago Tribune
John von Rhein

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Chicago is her kind of town.

Mei-Ann Chen made that abundantly clear in her welcoming remarks and in her spirited conducting of the opening piece on her first subscription concert as the Chicago Sinfonietta's new music director, Monday night at Orchestra Hall.

When the Taiwan-born American conductor raised her baton, into the hall poured the Kennedy-King Marching Band and the Anima Singers of Greater Chicago. They all joined the orchestra for a rousing rendition of "My Kind of Town," as arranged for orchestra, band and children's choir by Joe Clark. The curtain-raiser was kept as a surprise for the audience, and it was just the sort of crowd-pleasing send-off the occasion warranted.

Chen, 38, is a musician for whom "dynamic" and "electric" seem altogether too limiting. Her entire body is a bundle of podium energy; her keen ear and sharp eyes miss nothing. Thanks to her clear beat and articulate gestures, orchestral musicians pick up at once on her interpretive ideas, sending them out to the listener with much the same immediacy of effect.

Chen inherited a good orchestra from her predecessor, Paul Freeman, the sinfonietta's now-retired founding music director, but it also was an ensemble that needed an infusion of fresh, inspiriting leadership. To judge from Monday's season kickoff, she recognizes the potential in the ranks and is already pulling responses from them nobody has tapped for a very long time.

Monday's cannily constructed program stood as a model of how Chen intends to develop the sinfonietta's brand of diversity and inclusion while remaking the ensemble in her own image.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was the golden oldie, somewhat lacking in tonal weight and string sheen but full of coiled-spring energy. Surrounding it were pieces of more recent vintage by African-American (William Grant Still) and Asian (An-Lun Huang, Tyzen Hsiao) composers. Her soloist was Ann Hobson Pilot, who retired in 2009 after a distinguished four-decade career as principal harpist of the Boston Symphony – the.most prominent African-American musician to hold such a position with a major orchestra.

Both harp concertos, Still's "Ennanga" and John Williams' "On Willows and Birches," made fine showcases for Pilot's confident virtuosity and mastery of her difficult instrument. The former piece, from 1956, is catchy and lyrical, inspired by Ugandan harp music. The latter, written as a tribute to Pilot on her retirement from the BSO, is a well-crafted if musically slight piece whose two movements set misty harp undulations alongside rhythmically exuberant display, capped off by a long, brilliant cadenza.

Huang's Westernized fanfare, "Saibei Dance," and Hsaio's folkish "The Angel from Formosa" (played as an encore), bookended the program. In everything the sinfonietta players came through wholeheartedly for their new artistic chief. A musically adventuresome season, filled with high expectation, lies ahead.