Dr. Mei-Ann Chen is the newest music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, beginning her tenure with the 2010-11 season. Fresh off gigs as assistant conductor of the Baltimore and Atlanta symphonies, the young conductor gives insights on coming to Memphis.
What did you find appealing about being the music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra?
This is a dream come true. The biggest difference I can make to a community is through becoming an artistic leader to an important arts organization. My ultimate goal was to become a music director of a professional orchestra in this country, and the MSO appointment is so crucial to my development. This is what I've studied and lived for in my life so far, and this is where I want to make my first mark.
What do you think of Memphis?
Memphis is such a city of music. I didn't grow up in this country, so as a doctorate student at the University of Michigan, I took a class called Popular Music in America to familiarize myself with other genres. We studied Sun Records, Elvis, and much of the incredible history of the city. That aside, what has made the biggest impression on me is the warmth and sincerity of the people here. I can't wait to be part of the community.
What will be your first step coming into MSO?
My upcoming season is titled "Discovery" and it's about discovering the repertoire that will help the orchestra to master different styles and take the audience to different parts of the world, but also for me, it's about discovering MSO's potential. They are already empowering the musicians through such projects as Leading from Every Chair and Opus One. It's my long-term goal to make MSO the hottest institution in Memphis. We're doing innovative, creative things that people not only enjoy, but also find stimulating.
Has the symphony, like so many arts organizations, been affected by the sagging economy?
I aim to make the symphony such a thriving organization that it grows organically. What we can do right now is to reiterate the value of music for our community. The management team has been very supportive of me and we've designed an exciting season that's actually come out under budget. Important people in Memphis are taking steps to support MSO, so we must be doing something right.
How did you come to play the violin?
My parents grew up right after the Japanese occupied Taiwan and wanted to give my older sister and me the opportunity with music they didn't have. They thought the best way to get a free concert at home was to have us accompany each other, my older sister on the violin and myself on the piano. My sister is more of a visual artist, so I ended up taking on both instruments. Violin won out and I was lucky, because if you look at an orchestra, more than half are made up of string players. It's important to speak their language.
What compelled you to conduct?
I wanted to become a conductor ever since the age of 10. The conductor on the podium doesn't make any sound, but they connect with everybody in the room to achieve the very greatest sound. It wasn't something you could be taught in Taiwan at that period of time, but I took the matter into my own hands. I would memorize my violin part completely every time I went to rehearsal, so that I could watch the conductor all the time.
I never thought I would have a chance to formally learn conducting until the American Youth Orchestra changed my life overnight. They were touring in Taiwan and I got the opportunity to play for their conductor in a closed bar in the basement of the hotel where they were staying. I was awarded a scholarship and came to Boston. My parents thought I was coming to become a concert violinist, not knowing that I finally had my ticket to learn conducting. So my story is really an American dream-come-true.