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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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