World Music Foundation Podcast | Season 1, Episode 11
“Conducting is being the music.“
About this Episode
Praised for her dynamic, passionate conducting style, Taiwanese-American conductor Mei-Ann Chen is acclaimed for infusing orchestras with energy, enthusiasm and high-level music-making, galvanizing audiences and communities alike. In our conversation we follow her musical evolution from shy violin player in her birth country, Taiwan, to dynamic, trailblazing, internationally sought-after conductor. Mei-Ann also shares the inspirational interaction with Martin Luther King that inspired the creation of the MacArthur Award-winning, Chicago Sinfonietta, the nations most diverse orchestra, of which she is the principle conductor and music director.
(Intro Music Plays)
John Gardner: Hello Hello and welcome again to the World Music Foundation podcast. I am your host, John Gardner, and today we speak with award-winning, internationally sought after, Taiwanese-American conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. The World Music Foundation podcast is produced by the World Music Foundation. Our nonprofit mission is pretty simple: to open minds through music. And our guest today, Mei-Ann Chen, is definitely on that same mission, especially with her work as the conductor and music director of what is easily the most diverse symphony orchestra in the entire United States. Her guest conducting schedule alone lets you know how lucky we are to have time to speak with her. She’s all over the world, basically picking a place, she’s probably guest conducted there: Brazil, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Germany, Vietnam, Austria, Turkey, Mexico, it goes on and on. She’s been named as one of the top 30 influencers by Musical America. She’s won the Helen M. Thompson award from the League of American orchestras. She’s the first place winner of the prestigious Malko Competition in Denmark. All of this in addition to several ASCAP awards for innovative programming. Without a doubt she’s an authority on Western Classical conducting. For those of us who enjoy Western Classical music but don’t really understand the in’s and out’s of what’s going on up there on the podium, she pulls back the curtains for us and shows us how the sauce is made. For those of you who are avid Western Classical fans already, you probably already know our guest but you’re also gonna get an in-depth look into her musical philosophies and her amazing life story and inspirational musical journey. I’m excited to bring to you my conversation with Mei-Ann Chen.
John Gardner: Maestro it’s great to have you here.
Mei-Ann Chen: Well thank you for having me, John. So exciting we’re going to get to talk about music and culture and all that fun connection.
John Gardner: It’s a big topic and it’s one that you have both hands in all day long with the work you do. To get started we have listeners from around the world Obviously there will be a lot who know of you but, for those who aren’t familiar with you or your work we like to start kind of way back. What brought you to this point? If you could just take us back origin story. First memories of music, maybe perhaps first memories of music outside your culture. What was early life like?
Mei-Ann Chen: It was my parents who really loved music but never had the chance to get any musical education since they grew up right after the Japanese occupied Taiwan. So their dream was to have their two daughters providing free concerts everyday at home. They were very naive, so they had my older sister take up the violin, and me on the piano. My older sister started leaning towards visual arts so I ended up with the double duty of entertaining my parents on both the violin and piano. The light bulb moment for me, I knew I wanted to be a musician when my father would bring home recordings that he bought from music stores. He probably didn’t know what all the pieces were about but, he loved the violin. He brought home a collection of violin pieces. I remember being seven years old and waking up to this melody Thais Meditation not knowing what the piece was about, who is the composer, I was moved to tears. I was like ‘wow this is so beautiful it’s out of this world’. I ended up becoming a violin major, sort of my parents dream. I remember being so blown away by my first orchestra rehearsal. I was a shy violinist in the orchestra but I saw this person on the podium helping to create the biggest sound in the room when he moved around. I ran home and told my parents violin and piano are fun but I really want to be an orchestra conductor, so I can play the biggest instrument in the room. My parents being very realistic they were so supportive of me pursuing music but in their mind but, in their mind it was not possible for me to be an orchestra conductor in that generation and they were right. You could not get a degree in conducting there wasn’t such career choices as being a conductor, although there was a famous Taiwanese lady who my parents generation still remember was train in I believe in Australia and ended up returning to Taiwan to have a very unique music career. Everybody thinks about conductor she was almost famous, sort of a towering figure, and so everybody remembers this incredible lady.
John Gardner: What was her name?
Mei-Ann Chen: Guō Mei Jen. So last name is Guō. In Chinese we go last name first so it’s Mei Jen Guō. for people in the western world. But nobody knew how to help any future generations to pick up her. Basically the training was not there, so I wasn’t taking no for an answer. I couldn’t have a teacher but that didn’t mean I couldn’t show up to rehearsals with my parts memorize so I could fix my eyes on the conductor learning from observation. So I would be fixing my eyes on totally on the conductor the whole time. My teacher would look around, and I was the only kid looking up giving that it was probably fairly easy to memorize, but he probably didn’t know I was trying to steal his craft at age 10.
John Gardner: That’s great! So when you’re first learning you started on piano then moved to violin, and in the school system violin was your first instrument?
Mei-Ann Chen: You know in Taiwan all music majors are required to have a major and a minor. One of those instruments has to be the piano, which reinforce a very strong musical foundation. Which I realized is not the case all over the world. So for example our solfege ability meaning being able to sight read and sing a note by it’s pitch. Our solfege ability in Asia is similar to where solfege was developed, which is in France. Much more advanced than the American system. So when I came to the States, and I’ll tell you my fun story on how I came to the states because America gave me my chance to fulfill my dream. It’s interesting for me to see the differences in education systems in different continents. Coming to America as a teenager really allowed me to forge sort of these two, east meets west. You know in the eastern culture were so big on discipline, but in a way you can say we’re good followers. We’re not necessarily great creative minds, were not encouraged to do that. If you ask for example, now I have a position with National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival which includes the youth orchestra training program. We audition about four hundred students ages 14-22 that’s a big range, and select the best creme of the crop from Taiwan to create this I call the awesome symphony orchestra. People would not believe this is a youth orchestra. In the two weeks time we bring them from an outstanding young ensemble to almost like a professional level. So it’s interesting for me to see that in the Asian culture, particularly in Taiwan, when you ask a question then it’s dead silence for the next two minutes, and then you look around to see who has the bravest face to go on answering the question you’re asking. But in America it was a culture shock for me when I came as a teenager. I think here it encourages more independence, independent thinking, individuality, and being creative. To not be afraid to be different, and almost having a different opinion is encouraged. Which is like ‘wow that’s a completely different world than the one I grew up in’. But I think one of the best examples of the best of both worlds is my dear friend and mentor Yo-Yo Ma. Yo-Yo Ma has become a household and iconic name, but also if you look at his incredible upbringing and his own journey of search to his unique artistic voice representing many cultures, and creating the Silk Road Ensemble, exploring the cultural crossing and what that could bring to musical inspirations. That’s fantastic.
John Gardner: Yeah, that’s a beautiful thing, and that’s what I was thinking when you were comparing the two systems from your experience,the great followers, very disciplined, very practiced, and then on the U.S. creative, but have their own opinion if we could get a blending of those we could use a little more practice over here, and more dedication to practice. So when you were learning violin, the repertoire you were learning was it Chinese composer that they were teaching you on violin or Russian.
Mei-Ann Chen: You know the classical musicians in Taiwan were trained on classical repertoire. Meaning Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, so it’s no different than what you will see in conservatories in America. However to my training as a conductor, as I told you I was sort of a closet conductor since age 10, and when I got to the middle school I was part of this, it’s hard for people to understand here because, in our system we were all assigned to one class. A class of thirty students, then the teachers of various subjects comes to this particular classroom. So you have the same classmates whole year round. Which actually creates deeper friendships, but at the same time you are tied to that class. You are not mingling with classmates other than your classroom. So my class constituted the choir for the school. So we enter competition, and we had daily rehearsals. Our repertoire was almost purely Chinese folk tunes, and tunes we know well not necessarily pops, but these are tunes that have been handed down through generations and once in a while we may have a selection from Messiah, but it was mostly Taiwanese and Chinese music. It was an interesting time for me as a musician, because I am getting western repertoire on the violin and the piano, yet I am getting training as a conductor working with choruses, working with a repertoire that you can say is almost different.
John Gardner: Could you think of a couple of pieces that you might of learned at that age.
Mei-Ann Chen: Yeah, those are a little harder to translate because we’re people. Back then we remember we have what we call Minga. Minga is sort of created by the college students generation. Those songs are hard for me to translate on the spot. But some of those songs are all time favorites of certain generations. Even my niece and nephew may not actually know all the songs. What’s interesting I could tell you more than the title is that a lot of the songs. I am from Taiwan so I’m going to tap into, you known music is connected to the circumstances of the generation, so alot of our songs back then, the content for our songs have alot of nationalistic yearning. We grew up thinking we got to one day return to Taiwan to rescue our people over there. We have to bring them the democratic freedom, and end turmoil. So actually a lot of our content of our popular songs that we sing in choruses stem from that. Of course there is also love stories, it’s not just nostalgic national songs, but it’s interesting how certain political message could influence a generation, because that’s totally in the music training that we were getting. Of course now we have many Taiwanese cross over to visit China, but when i was growing up nobody was crossing anywhere. If a soldier flew a plan from China to Taiwan he would overnight be a national hero. Some even tried to swim over, because it’s a narrow sea, but some risk being eaten or attacked by sharks. But now it’s hard to imagine that period where if you think about it we don’t have the same songs now, because the political situation has been different. Also you can say the relationship between Taiwan and China, however tense it is, it was not the same as fifty years ago where you didn’t know if you were going to be attack overnight. So it’s interesting you asked me about the songs we were singing that it reminded me of all this complicated history between Taiwan and China.
John Gardner: Well that’s what music does it helps us grapple with those situations, and it’s part of the zeitgeist of the whole time. You mentioned there was a difference, obviously the content is different, what about musically was there any musical differences that stood out?
Mei-Ann Chen: Musical difference is probably less to most people ears because in general the traditional Chinese melodies are built on pentatonic scales. For those listeners who don’t necessarily know what pentatonic scale means. It’s, if you look at a piano keyboard it’s almost like you’re hitting only the white notes, and not getting to the black notes. What we call the chromatic, you know, you’re creating, you’re dividing the pitch by a smaller distance by the black notes. So it’s skipping the black notes a lot of the time and creating this pentatonic scale that actually influenced a lot of western composers. Because if you think about sort of the late nineteenth century, particularly, when the world exhibition is in a lot of major cities in the world, that people were able to be exposed to what’s happening to the other parts of the world. And for example, Debussy, Ravel, the two most dominated composers during the impressionistic period, they were fascinated with arts, music of the east. So you will see Japanese painting sort of being tied to Debussy’s La Mer for example. The imagery of that, the sea, or literally using, quoting Chinese musical idiom, or referencing in the title. Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” has a movement that’s very Chinese. In terms of how it sounds and in terms of the title I was just thinking of, for example, Puccini quoting one of the oldest melodies that not only popular as a nursery rhyme in Taiwan, but it’s an old Chinese melody Mo Li Hua,’ the jasmine flower in Turandot. It’s just fascinating just in terms of these composers capturing the other cultures, some of the characteristics of the other cultures either music or art in their own creation. I think that’s a fabulous time. I would love to be living in that time, and you know if you think about it they don’t have internet.
John Gardner: Yeah.
Mei-Ann Chen: They don’t have necessarily phone as a popular household item. Everything is through, you know, long distance writing, and how, how did they get access to be exposed to the culture across the world. I mean that’s, that’s so fascinating to me.
John Gardner: Yeah, that’s amazing to think about. And to think how spoiled we are that we can, we can access everything, and we don’t take advantage of it as often as we should probably. So at ten you already knew. You said I want to play the, I want to be the orchestra. I want to play all the instruments through my gestures, through my hands. So at that time it sounded, you mentioned before you ask a question, it’s silent. It sounded like you might have been in that same crowd. You weren’t, you weren’t speaking up at that time…
Mei-Ann Chen: You are absolutely right.
John Gardner: How did you get from that point where you’re a Violinist with this dream in your head to actually one day becoming a conductor?
Mei-Ann Chen: You know, for those out there listening in terms of, you know, a young musician’s career is a challenging one. You know and many people might say, and what, what kind of advice for them because it’s a bottleneck for there’s so many more musicians that we are creating through conservatories, but the job opportunities are shrinking. I mean, Taiwan quickly as well, I mean I can literally the number of professional orchestras in Taiwan is within my ten fingers. I mean that’s how competitive the job opportunities are. And so I have given it long and hard about how I would say to encourage those of you who still want to pursue this as a, as your passion in life. It’s probably three areas. One, you’ve got to have the talent.
John Gardner: Yeah.
Mei-Ann Chen: If you don’t have the talent it’s really, this is not something, just like any, any art. If you have the talent and you can go further quickly, not to say that hard work isn’t a great part of it, but if you have the talent then you have to work super hard to really develop your talent fully. You know I think about musicians as Olympians on their instruments and it takes I think, most people didn’t realize it takes thousands of hours to just master sort of a very tiny muscle memory. I mean that’s just, to have a vibrato on a string instrument, it looks easy, but you know I remember being, coming to the states and I’ll tell you the story in a minute, having that chance to finally pursue music full time, I remember practicing my vibrato and it sounds like a fire alarm to my host family’s children who I recently reconnected after thirty years and they were like totally remembering my vibrato drill. And you know, but they saw first hand how much dedication one has to go into developing one’s talent, and that’s leading into my second area which is, which is passion. Because what sustains us through all these lonely nights of practicing by ourselves, not necessarily getting called for engagements, or what we call gigs, is the passion for what you do. I would, I can, I can say this on behalf of most of the artists out there. We do what we do not because it can create a big fortune. If it comes with it we all hope that there’s a chance that the fortune can come with it, but we do what we do because we love what we do. It’s really not about if we do this well it can bring us this and that and that. It’s that gratification of “boy, I got to play this better than yesterday. Now I can nail that top note like I never before could.” And it’s that gratification of creating something meaningful and beautiful to be shared with others that’s priceless. You can’t put a price to that. And so, the passion is I would say one of the most important successful, most important ingredient in the elements that make a successful career because we will go through ups and downs.
John Gardner: Yeah.
Mei-Ann Chen: More than almost any other professions out there. Because there’s just no guarantee that you’re going to succeed even if you work so hard. And so that’s leading to a third area for those young artists, young budding artists out there which is opportunities and a little bit of luck. These two are connected meaning we all work so hard on our own in our living room, in our practice room with our teacher’s private lessons, the parents transporting them even more frequent than the soccer games, you know, it takes a whole village to raise an orchestra we say in our industry. It really takes a lot of people to create an artist. And yet, at the same time, I didn’t realize until I was older that opportunities, sometimes you can rely on others, but you can also create opportunities. And one of the most important things that people don’t realize is networking.
John Gardner: Oh yeah.
Mei-Ann Chen: And networking comes from basically, you know, for those of you listening out there I don’t want you to think networking like a business term. Because as we begin our conversation, networking is being curious about creating communities. Communities that’s connected with other, other people. And so if you think about, you know, our, there are so many immigrants in this country, and that’s an interesting topic because America is basically proud to be a melting pot. And if you really put your hands, in terms of, you know, what’s, you know 1893 when Dvorak premiered the “New World Symphony” in Carnegie Hall being a Czech composer writing this nationalistic American music. I mean he thought the American music was Native American, the African American’s music, and if you think about the 1920s, you know, during Ravel’s time. Again back to that period of, you know, the European composers totally fascinated with what was happening in America is the music of jazz.
John Gardner: Sure.
Mei-Ann Chen: It really originates from Africa. So if you think about, I think it’s interesting that, you know, the networking has actually help expand the art forms in so many ways, and so, leading back to my own story to answer your question, sorry it took such a big circle, is that then you will understand what I have all mentioned about. At the age of sixteen I was a very hard-working, sort of a secret closet conductor. I was working on my music not knowing what prospect of a career lays ahead for me. So, the American Youth Orchestra came to Taiwan to tour. And my older accompanist who spoke English took me backstage to meet the conductor, who’s name is Benjamin Zander, and you can find him on very inspirational TED talks talking about the power of music. And that’s the conductor who met me and actually heard me play in the only place quiet enough in the whole hotel. The next morning, there was a closed bar in the basement with the smell of beer. There I was, not knowing there is any chance for me to pursue my dream in America after he heard my Wieniawski on a pretty terrible violin. I didn’t have a piano accompaniment lined up because it was last minute meeting. He offered me a scholarship on the spot in that stinking bar and said “Would you like to study violin in Boston”? Affiliated with New England Conservatory, I was a junior in high school. I was turning to being a junior because it was May and it was followed by summer break, so I was about to become a junior in high school and I thought, “Why not”? So, I tricked my parents into giving me a ticket to go pursue music in Boston to pursue violin.
John Gardner: They thought- (Laughs) to pursue violin.
Mei-Ann-Chen: And then, you know, I started studying score, I would hide my score of Mahler 5- This same youth orchestra, two summers later as I was graduating high school was on tour in Spain, and I bought my first conductor’s score, the score to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Number Five. I would hide it only to take it out during the long bus rides because I didn’t want any of my classmates asking me, “What are you doing with this fake score?”. Because, all music are pretty thin and large- large page, but thin. So, when you see this music with thick scores, you know, it’s a conductor’s score. So I didn’t, as you heard, I was a stubborn girl. I was equipping myself. If I want to be a conductor, I need to be able to read a score. Whether I can read Transposition and understand all of that is less the question, I just need to get myself in the door and understanding what all the lined mean. And so, the last soundcheck in Madrid, it’s interesting, I have so many- I mentioned earlier you need a little bit of luck and here are my angels in my life. So, my lovely American stand partner, Annie, who was a very sweet person, went to Mr. Zander during the Spain tour and said, well Mr. Zander every time that you ask who wants to conduct at the end of a rehearsal, Mei-Ann was too shy to raise her hand. See, that was my- Asian-
John Gardner: Is that the second time someone has had to speak up for you?
Mei-Ann-Chen: I had to really break out of my shell, and conducting really has done that for me, but you know, I was pretty shy and I didn’t know how to be well- I was too shy to raise my hand. And so, I had this American angel who went to the conductor who let him know, “Hey, Mr. Zander. Mei-Ann really wants to raise her hand”. And so, the last soundcheck in Madrid, Mr. Zander approached me as we were unpacking our instruments ready for soundcheck. He basically said, “Mei-Ann, come up here and conduct the first movement of Mahler number five”. That’s the first piece I ever conducted, so dreams do come true! But- but, I was equipping myself. Okay, I know the music by ear, we were performing nighttimes on tour, so you know the piece really well, but I was equipping myself. And so, when I stepped on the podium, I think all my classmates were stunned like “Wow, she can really do this”. And some of them came to me afterwards and said, “I think you really have talent for this”. And so, It went from there to just a quick Reader’s Digest version of my musical journey so far is that, you know, I’ve gotten all the degrees there is to get. I’ve gotten a doctorate in conducting, double master degrees in violin for my parents, and masters in conducting for myself, but I couldn’t get any orchestra to give me a chance. So when I realized the amount of rejection letters that I received when I was a was a doctoral candidate at University of Michigan was more than the notes that I ever conducted, I almost gave up. I mean it’s pretty hard not to give up, because it’s like nobody wants you. You know it’s almost like everybody is saying “you don’t have enough talent for this”. I didn’t give up due to my wonderful family, especially my sister and brother in law, who actually encouraged me to stay and finish my degree. Even though my parents really wanted me to come back home in Taiwan and just maybe become an ordinary music teacher, still making a big difference, but it just wasn’t to me. If I wanted to help other young conductors, like me, in Taiwan, wanted to pursue this very unique field then I have to try it myself, and fail badly to know what does it take to succeed. In every juncture, being an assistant conductor, trying to be in a search of music director, and now of have an incredible schedule of an international guest conductor. All these roles are different, and I said to myself ‘’ if I don’t go through all these roles, how am I suppose to help others”? So it’s interesting now, I have gone through three staff positions with major orchestras, and two major music directorship. First one with Memphis Symphony, and I had to give that up to allow more flexibility to guest conductors around the world. I kept the Chicago Sinfonietta, because it’s a chance for me to explore that wonderful mission about embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion, by creating a community through bold symphonic programs. So it’s the best mission that fell into my lap. This love affair with Chicago Sinfonietta, started for me because I was invited as a guest conductor. So it’s interesting how all these roles…how do you master being a staff conductor, being a spokesperson in educational programs for example. That actually will be one of the highlights for me as I make my debut with New York Phil next year in their young person concert, and championing for women composers which is tied to a project that we are so proud of at Chicago Sinfonietta. As we conceive this idea Project W, way before every orchestra is now talking about women composers. About three years ago, we conceive this idea to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary, which is two seasons ago. Culminating in a commercial recording, called Project W, through the Cidille Records, a wonderful label based in Chicago, not only to showcase Chicago composers, but unique musical works out there in our industry. So this Project W has really gotten a lot of attention, because women composers as of 2016 or 2017, works by women composers are less than 2%.
John Gardner: Wow
Mei-Ann Chen: In our entire repertoire performed by professional orchestras were nationwide. So we’re breaking that barrier wide with many orchestras joining the effort and the major orchestra joining effort. Like New York Phil with their project nineteen, commissioning nineteen women composers in commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the nineteenth amendment of women’s right to vote. So it’s an interesting time we live in now. For me being a music director, you asked about in our email about the different roles, I would like to say as a music director you can make an impact to a community. For us, even though Chicago Sinfonietta is based in Chicago, our impact is nationwide. It’s what I call probably one of the most impactful boutique orchestra in the world. Why? Not only because our programming is one of a kind. For example, you will see us repeating our Diwali Festival coming up. Last year we created the first Diwali Festival program. I’m pretty sure we were the first orchestra in the nation to have tap into this. How do we create a meaningful program surrounding one of the most important festivals for the Hindu community. They celebrate this similar to the western world celebrating Christmas, the Festival of Light. Basically it’s the same message that good triumphs over evil. So it’s a wonderful way for us to really explore and expand boundary of what symphonic music can be. Also the national impact of the Chicago Sinfonietta really thanks to the founder, my predecessor, Paul Freeman legacy of creating the most diverse orchestra right here in chicago. He thought Chicago was the perfect city to do so in 1989. It’s been an amazing journey to really see one of our underdog programs that people may have not realized Project Inclusion Freedman Fellowship, which started to train, basically give, young musicians who had music degrees, but haven’t yet landed professional position to bridge that gap of playing side by side with our professional musicians of creating small ensembles that we send to various communities to really help them develop what it is to be an entrepreneur on their own. So as I started my tenure I said one of my dreams was to create an expansion to include young conductors and thanks to the Mellon Foundation finding to include artistic leaders. We have now created one of a kind program that has launched close to a dozen young conductors in the country who backgrounds are from diverse backgrounds and who have now have major positions in America orchestras. You name it Minnesota Orchestra, San Diego symphony, Pacific Symphony, Fort Worth symphony, Jacksonville, Charleston, Memphis. I mean it’s unbelievable.
John Gardner: That’s amazing! That’s beautiful!
Mei-Ann Chen: In terms of if you can think of all these young conductors going out there and one day when they have their music directorship to be able to continue that spread of creating opportunities for all kinds of diverse backgrounds musicians and other people, not necessarily just musicians, but their community members. Imagine the impact.
John Gardner: That’s huge, and that’s beautiful! This organization where you’re the conductor, the music director, you mentioned the Chicago Sinfonietta, it seems like this organization put this concept on the map in a lot of ways.
Mei-Ann Chen: Right!
John Gardner: It seems like Maestro Freeman was really pioneering this. I like if you could take back to the origins of the Sinfonietta. Actually we were talking earlier that are nonprofit missions are pretty closely aligned. There’s bound to be overlap. The chairperson of our board, for the World Music Foundation, was actually personal assistant to Maestro Freeman: Erika Walton-Sitzberger.
Mei-Ann Chen: Yes! Of course!
John Gardner: She was even on stage with him up to the last performances.
Mei-Ann Chen: Of course! I remember that! Oh wow! You know to talk about, one of the most beautiful things that I have witnessed at the Chicago Sinfonietta is that families are findings these organizations that share such values with us and be able to collaborate, I mean that just makes my day, so thank you for sharing that! That is strange! Wow!
John Gardner: So can you explain for the audience how did the Sinfonietta get its start.
Mei-Ann Chen: Yes, so Maestro Paul Freeman had a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, at wee hours at the Atlanta airport. This was maybe just before the year of Dr. King assassin. So they have met earlier, I want to say at the Nobel Peace Prize. So they knew of each other. So Dr. King at the Atlanta airport was so surprised to see Dr. Freeman, and said “Dr. Freeman what are you doing here”? After Maestro Freeman replied to Dr. King that “I’m here as the first African American conductor to ever conduct the Atlanta symphony orchestra”. Dr. King replied “Glory hallelujah, the last bastion of elitism!”.
John Gardner: Wow!
Mei-Ann Chen: That’s a pretty amazing sentence that stuck with Dr. Freeman.That planted the seed of him wanting to create an ensemble to help others to have the opportunities that they didn’t have. So in 1987 he decided to create the most diverse orchestra right here in Chicago. It later became the Chicago Sinfonietta.
John Gardner: That’s not just by chance, that’s in the mission statement to be diverse right?
Mei-Ann Chen: Exactly I think our mission from the start was to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion, through innovative programming. If you really look at Maestro Freeman programming. Actually my first encounter of my own study with Chicago Sinfonietta came from a very unusual piece that caught the industry’s attention. I believe it was in the early 2000’s. There was a front page of the New York Times.There was a crazy orchestra that commissioned the Concertino For Cell Phone And Orchestra. That was before the cell phone was a household item. I thought to myself, “what is this crazy orchestra that is doing this kind of programming”?. Sure enough that was my beginning encounter with Chicago Sinfonietta. Later on after my assistantship in Oregon symphony, I spent two years being assistant with Atlanta symphony, and one year with Baltimore symphony. If you take those two cities, Atlanta and Baltimore, they have large African-American population. Oftentimes I’m charged with conducting community concerts, so I have to research African-American composers. That is totally unknown territory to me coming out of training from conservatories. My go to number one source would be the city records African-American heritage series recorded by Maestro Paul Freeman and the Chicago Sinfonietta, because there are just no such things. You can read things on the internet, but you need to hear what the pieces sound like.
John Gardner: So your conservatory trained, classically trained rising to the top of this field of music study. I mean even for you it was so hard to find recordings of African-American composers.
Mei-Ann Chen: Exactly! So I think the Chicago Sinfonietta and Maestro Freeman recordings became the only source for some of these hard to find pieces. That’s why I so loved what Sinfonietta had stood for our industry, and what city records has done to promote underserved composers and artists. It’s wonderful to one day be at the state of this orchestra that I have studied, that I have heard about, and of course I didn’t know what I was getting into. It’s wonderful to be a spectator, let someone else do the crazy work, but to be a music director you really have to think ‘How do we continue Maestro Freeman legacy?’ ‘How do we continue embracing cultural richness through the universal language of symphonic music?’. My sister for example, always thinks coming to symphonic music she has to behave differently. She’s coming from a pops person’s perspective. She loves all the popular songs, and they’re short, and, sweet, and quick. Symphonic concert pieces are long, and it’s different. Yet I was able to use her perspective to think, ‘okay we are not just created people who love classical music, but were pushing a boundary of how can we create unique programming that tells stories with each and everyone of our concerts. We only have five pairs a year. So it’s easy for us to take a theme and run with it. For example this year, we open the season with Beethoven 5, but pairing that with the concept of environmental issues. Our earth is burning up. We not only include pieces that feature wonderful geographic’s, for example Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides”; Fingal’s Cave as most people know it, this wonderful, natural, geographic place inspired masterpiece in the repertoire. We are taking that one step further of contrasting that with a new commission by three young composers of different diverse backgrounds creating an Earth trip take, really describing Earth as it was before, Earth as it’s changing being impacted by many including humans. Grasping with ‘where are we going to?’. So it’s a unique concept for Beethoven 5. For me Beethoven 5 is about universality, the brotherhood, sisterhood, but what a better way for us to have Beethoven 5 to remind us that together we can continue to make an impact on our mother Earth, the planet we’re living in. So really finding topics that is really front and center in our society right now and connecting to our repertoire that’s the challenge.
John Gardner: That’s some programming right there! Hats off! You mentioned earlier the statistic of only two percent of the national repertoire of female composers. Last time I looked I think only five percent are by African-American and Latino composers. So your job, of these underrepresented composers and pieces, how do you get people to attend these things? You already answered my question, by making these themes. That’s a lot of work.
Mei-Ann Chen: Yes. It’s a hard balance to find because we have gone through a period where we thought of our blue ocean strategy. We perform in the same halls as the Chicago symphony, which are a classical giant in the industry and in Chicago. So if we only perform pieces that are similar to the CSO, then who will come to our concerts on Monday night. That’s when we have the hall. So we thought the blue ocean strategy is to do pieces that fits our storytelling. Then we realized we also have to pair it with some of the classical repertoire, because we are a symphony orchestra. Hitting that balance of taking perhaps a well known piece, for example one of our upcoming programs I’m very excited about other than the Diwali Festival is a program that is inspired by a theme that is very common.
For example, a theme connecting artwork and music. So we have pictures and an exhibition by Mussorgsky which is you know another great masterpiece in our repertoire that showcase all kinds of colors, symphonic colors. We’re pairing that to the incredible Chicago base, now world known soloist Jennifer Koh. With a new piece by Courtney Bryan who is this wonderful African American woman composer taking the inspiration from three women artists to create three different movements. So I have goosebumps just hearing we are crossing. It’s an old theme you know Mussorgsky did it with Ravel. We’re doing the Ravel version. All these composers have done it over the centuries. For us to continue finding works like this, and this all happened in the month of women, why we wanted to be a celebration of women artist. Not just visual artist, but soloist. I have goosebumps just thinking about that March concert. I think we have found a way to crack this very difficult symphonic field in our country is how do we attract younger audience. Our way of creating that is of course by creating storytelling. Sometimes they come not because they know Beethoven 5, you know we do have those die heart fans as well, but they come because it’s a weekend to remember Dr. King. So that’s one of our best selling concerts, and we have happen to have one of the best dates in town because we’re the orchestra that does the Dr. King celebration. At the same time we have done in our 30th anniversary the Project W, nightworks by women, four of those were commissioned works. Let me tell you about our Hear me Roar program. We put an all women composer program in March. If I tell you all those composers, we have to do an art by art sake. Whether anybody comes to the concert or not, whether Chicago Sinfonietta, we have to so something like that. It was Jennifer Higdon, who is the most well known out of the four. Reena Esmail, a wonderful composer who grew up in Los Angeles, but really of India heritage, forging that idioms together. Then we also have Florence Price, the first African American composer when Chicago Sinfonietta primered her first symphony in the early 30’s, so she is most well known in Chicago then the rest of the country. Then ending with Dora Pejacevic, the first symphonic composer in Croatia, she happened to be a woman. So we did this program thinking no one is going to come to the concert, there is no big symphonic pieces that people recognize. Actually it turned out to be one of our biggest single ticket sells, because one of our board members timed it to collaborate with her women’s leadership program. So actually we had a pretty good house of people trusting they are going to hear interesting music, and they were curious about all these women composers and they came. I like to share that program as one of our you know we have to take a chance, and perhaps the community will follow you.
John Gardner: Thats come with years of building that reputation I’m sure, but I just love knowing now from the shy violinist to the bold trendsetting impactful music director and conductor that’s amazing, that’s great. If you allow me, I know I’m taking your time, I’d like to ask you some questions just about conducting. I am asking for myself, as much as the audience. For those like myself that enjoy the music, but don’t really know what’s going on up there. I’ll start by clearing the air clearly what conductors are doing, it’s been proven scientifically study wise, you all have a huge impact on the quality of music that comes out. How would describe what your role is as a conductor?
Mei-Ann Chen: I describe the role as conductor, being a conduit, a channel in which the composers can have his or her voice heard. Even though we’re the most visible physically on stage in terms of everybody responding to what the composer is doing on the podium, but I think my job is really done well when people forget about what I am doing physically, but really understand the music they’re hearing. So are job is to let the composer speak. Even though I have been told I am a very passionate conductor on the podium, but my job is to serve the music. I want to show you a vision of how the symphony is. I been told that when people come to my concert when they see my conducting they can see the piece, and so that’s the best compliment I’ve gotten.
John Gardner: So for the musicians they are following that so that has to give energy for the performance.
Mei-Ann Chen: Well I call it the circle of energy. The best conductor for me personally is not the one who is making their orchestra follow, but the orchestra is an equal partner in creating this energy. I trained the Taiwanese young musicians because I was so moved. As you heard we are great followers it’s easy to picture an orchestra that doesn’t move. When I encourage this musicians to dance out of their chair, I literally have to physically stand to dance through Carmen to really understand. You know you can’t play Carmen straight you have to feel that sensual, wonderful feeling that Carmen gives you the different selections. To have them almost conduct through phrasings, and to see that movement express freely. That was the best part with working with young people is that they don’t know the limit yet, so you give them the freedom to express. For me I always say conducting is about ‘being the music’, I should copy write that phrase, it’s not beating the music. Whatever we do to help the musicians to be able to do their best. So the best compliments a musician can ask for is that they remember the piece they worked with you. They play all this music on such a regular basis, if they remember a guest conductor, what repertoire, that really imprints an experience on their music making.
John Gardner: I bet and I wondered about that for guest conductors. How long do you have with the group to get them ready?
Mei-Ann Chen: As a guest conductor, which is one of my favorite roles now, which is occupying most of my calendar.
Mei-Ann Chen: The guest conducting is like a speed dating with orchestras. You have usually three or four rehearsals to put things together.
John Gardner: That’s all?
Mei-Ann Chen: Exactly. That’s all! And you come in, but nowadays with internet it’s easier to get footage of the orchestras you will be working, or if they’re major orchestras like New York Phil obviously you can even find recordings of the pieces you’re conducting knowing their history. But it still doesn’t take away that if they’re going to react to me, or if I like making music with them. There’s always before the first rehearsal I usually can not sleep much. There’s still this anxiety of is the other date party going to like me?
John Gardner: Wow, really?
Mei-Ann Chen: It’s very much still there and it doesn’t necessarily get easier. I can tell you I still have a lot of debuts every year in my calendar and it keeps me on my toe because you go in and most orchestras form their opinion on you in the first couple minutes. And then as you go through the sequence, they will judge you on whether you can pace things, whether you can rehearse, whether you can hear things and fix it without putting people down. I mean it’s a, it’s a psychological game almost.
John Gardner: Wow, yeah that’s, that’s amazing. Thanks for sharing that insight. I hadn’t thought of all those different levels, and that’s a great analogy, the dating, feeling each other out. How do you react to this situation?
Mei-Ann Chen: Yeah! It is! It is. Right! And the, you know and it depends on the person you’re dating, well it depends on the orchestra you’re dating. You know, like I said some major orchestras, they come with their own history and personality of how they interpret certain pieces. But you still have to go in and make your case of what you think the composer is trying to say.
John Gardner: That’s what I was wondering because like you said you can hear maybe even a recording of how this specific orchestra did this specific piece. As a conductor, how much leeway do you have with these pieces? Do you have any say so on how it’s played?
Mei Ann Chen: You know, I think again it’s interpersonal skills, and it depends on the orchestras. For example, when I did my debut, subscription debut, of Chicago Symphony a couple years ago, not only has Florence Price, which was the reason that sparked me into discovering woman composer’s work because I was so curious. I didn’t know much about her work until Chicago Symphony. Martha Gilmer, who is now the president San Diego, basically was asking me “Mei, we would love for you to include this composer.” You could see the panic in my eyes. Like who is this composer? I have a doctorate degree in music but I didn’t know her. And so I started me really doing her pieces a lot, but also on the same program because it was part of the river festival designed by Yo-Yo Ma, it included Scheherazade, a major symphonic piece. The CSO has recorded it eight times at least with major conductors in the world. And so, how do you, they were so kind to me. You go in and you show them, you try to show them what the music, they react to connecting. You know, and it’s not like you have to talk so much. But I remember a wonderful story because there was a part of the harp glissando that I, used to be, I’m so used to doing it just one eighth note later than the composers writing. So had to approach the wonderful principle harp, and said, and this is right before the dress rehearsal, the rehearsal before the dress rehearsal, and I said to her, “would you mind trying to place this glissando just one second late.” You know I told her exactly when to come in, and she gave me this interesting reaction of facial expression. “Hmm, well I’ve always, you know, done it the way it is, but I’ll give it a try.” And she was very kind.
John Gardner: Okay.
Mei-Ann Chen: So when we get to that point, as we were going through that spot in that rehearsal, and did it the way I suggested, she gave me this big smile. And then afterward she said to me, “I never thought about doing it that way, but it totally worked.”
John Gardner: Wow, that’s great.
Mei-Ann Chen: And so you know I took a chance. You know with a major orchestra, they have a certain way of doing things and when you won it’s. Even Berlin Philharmonic with Claudio Abbado I have had their recordings, studied documentary footage of their relationship. Abbado has to negotiate his musical ideas with the giant. But for me it’s not about negotiation. It’s about working together. Making your, from a very shy girl who never could raise her hand to having to present musical ideas with a conviction. You have to be convinced why you think the composer is trying to do here. And finding a way to make people say no to you is also what I learn you know bit by going through all these different roles as a conductor. Being a staff, serving your music director, serving your team, being a leader of music director, helping to guide an organization, and taking all of that in interpersonal skills. Being a guest, obviously you have to know your limit. There’s certain what I call landmines. You know some of the hard ones. You better know what you’re talking if you want to touch intonation.
John Gardner: Oh, okay.
Mei-Ann Chen: But sometimes things are really out of tune so if you don’t touch it the orchestra cannot fix itself, and they think you cannot hear.
John Gardner: I see.
Mei-Ann Chen: So how do you take a hot potato topic like intonation and not put anybody down. “You’re too flat.” It’s also how you say things, and I have to constantly remind myself that everybody is trying to do their best. And so if I can find a way for people to work together better I may suggest maybe a wider octave; you know maybe the bassoon can come lower, the oboes can come higher, not putting anybody on the spot. I’ve learned early on that when you put someone on the spot, and being a female leader sometimes it could be challenging. And so you learn through interesting experience, interesting programs and learn from mistakes as well. And pick yourself up if things don’t go so well. I’m conducting a program on stage, maybe the last performance of a repeating sequence, and I said to myself, “this spot, next time I guest conduct this piece I’m going to try this differently here. I mean you know you have to be a leader, but you also cannot let people feel like you don’t know the answer. But at the same time leaders tend to be, if we don’t, as an artist if we don’t grow constantly then we go backwards. So I still push myself. There are things that I said to myself even if I conducted many times on a piece I know so well, there are still things I can learn from others.
John Gardner: Wow. Seems to be a constant theme. You’re constantly learning and incorporating things so. Maestro Chen I could honestly speak with you all day.
Mei-Ann Chen: Yes. Me too! Thank you!
John Gardner: I keep getting worried that someone’s going to come to this door and kick me out though so, I’ll end with just, normally I do a little lightning round of random questions, but I have kind of a well, no pun intended, but offbeat question. When I watch some orchestras, and the conductor’s leading it seems to my eyes, I could be completely wrong, but it seems like the orchestra is responding late to the, is that by design?
Mei-Ann Chen: Yes. Oh my gosh you tap into what I call the million dollar tip!
John Gardner: Alright!
Mei-Ann Chen: Because this was what I had to figure out early on. When was in Oregon I was music director of America’s oldest youth orchestra, the Portland Youth Philharmonic. I had to lead the top group and the intermediate group and I was also assistant with the Oregon Symphony. In the same week I would be working with three different age group, meaning the professional orchestra under maybe young people’s concert program, and then the top youth orchestra pieces. Big pieces like Mahler symphony or Rite of Spring, and then the intermediate group with pieces less challenging, and the reaction times were so different.
John Gardner: Really?
Mei-Ann Chen: The young musicians tend to come in, even the least experienced, come in earlier.
John Gardner: Really?!
Mei-Ann Chen: You haven’t even, you haven’t even think you arrived at the bottom of your beat they come in. They see you move they come in!
John Gardner: Yeah! Here it comes!
Mei-Ann Chen: And then the good youth orchestra meet you where you think the beat is, and then the professional orchestra is like behind your beat.
John Gardner: Really?
Mei-Ann Chen: And so you tap into this, what I call, this is almost on top, nobody talks about it in our field, and I have been training the young conductors to navigate. Because this is so hard to learn and most of us learn on the job. You either crash and burn or you make a career once you figure out. So the professional orchestra has a reaction time and every orchestra is different. Cleveland is going to be different from Boston and different from New York, Atlanta.
John Gardner: Do you see it different in different parts of the world?
Mei-Ann Chen: Yes. Yes. And this is interesting because every orchestra has its own timing. The best way for me is not even to talk about it. Like I said this is almost like a taboo.
John Gardner: Really? I had no idea with this question. This is amazing.
Mei-Ann Chen: Because if you talk about the orchestra think you cannot conduct.
John Gardner: Okay. I see.
Mei-Ann Chen: My best way is to figure out quickly who reacts to my beat what way, and different sections react to your beats differently.
John Gardner: Really?
Mei-Ann Chen: It’s almost, conducting is a juggling act.
John Gardner: Yeah, it sounds like it.
Mei-Ann Chen: Because not only you have to figure out your date, but you know you’re not dating one person you’re dating eighty people who have different opinion of how the piece should go.
John Gardner: Oh yeah. That’s true!
Mei-Ann Chen: And you have to figure out quickly how to respond to the different sections, and if a section is, you know the percussion and the brass section they’re behind the orchestra most of the time. They react late. So you have to find a way to find a way for them to anticipate their beats so in the audience when you hear the collective sound, that it’s not late. But you can imagine, most members of those sections are likely gentlemen. So for me, a young girl, to be addressing something that “we’ve always played this way, who are you to tell us to play differently?” You see I have a tough job.
John Gardner: That is tough.
Mei-Ann Chen: And so it’s finding, and this is what I tell the young conductors of pyramid, you have to judge in your limited time in preparing a challenging program. You know for young conductors are challenging because it’s often times our first time. In a lot of situations, and now I have a reputation of saying yes to a lot of new music thanks to a lot of new music to me, and so a lot of times is first time. So you have, as a leader you have to have this pyramid. What is the most important? What is falling apart? Is it the transition? Is it balance? You have to figure out quickly. And to do it in the way that people feel like you have solve what they cannot solve on their own, which is ensemble, which is balance, which is, when we are talking about reaction timing that contributes to the ensemble. Whether the orchestra sounds together at all. And so I have to, you may see me very calm because you know, I’ve been doing this for about five years. I’ve been guest conducting about twenty-some orchestras a year. So, and accumulating a lot of different ensembles in the world. Now I have a position in Austria as well. And so you, it becomes a little bit easier in terms of, in terms of what to fix. What to go to next. Maybe the first rehearsal it’s about pacing. The first rehearsal is really about fixing the details because if you go too much into the detail, which means stopping a lot, talking a lot, the orchestra turns off their attention to you. They don’t like to stop, they like to play. So when to go and let people just play and get a sense of what they can do, and when to know something’s fixed themselves from rehearsals to rehearsals. What things you don’t fix will never be fixed. It’s discerning all that, at a moment, while you’re dealing with this. Because people, conducting looks, you know my cousin who travels with me who’s my assistant now always asks me this fun question. “Are they really watching you?” She’s an interior designer so she’s like, “are they really watching you and reacting to?” Now she has travelled with me, hearing the piece being repeated by different orchestras. She totally get it now. That yes, they’re reacting to you, and different orchestra might react to the same gesture differently. And so conducting is when it looks easy we’re dealing with three parts. We’re preparing how the ensemble is about to play, so you will see the conductor move before the sound happens. That’s easy for you to observe. Now when the sound happens we’re immediately thinking, “Is this the sound I want, and if it’s not how do I change my gesture to get the sound I want?” And then immediately thinking about, “okay when I stop in a few seconds, or when I stop at the end of this section, how, what and how do I go back and fix that would be most effective?” So we are very busy.
John Gardner: Yeah, there’s a lot going on up there!
Mei-Ann Chen: In terms of not only physically, but you’re constantly managing. It’s like a, almost like a NBA training. We’re managing the resources, we’re managing the goals, we’re managing the time we have, and we, I’m always watching the clock like a hawk because if you go over one second, that’s overtime. And for orchestra, that’s very expensive. So I’m, I am living a very interesting life of a busy guest conductor in the world. I have a position in Chicago, I have a position in Europe, I have a position in Taiwan. And yet my, the best part of my job, I wouldn’t trade my job still because even though I’m living out of suitcase, I don’t have much of a home base other than Chicago with the Chicago Sinfonietta my work here, I still wouldn’t trade my job because it’s so unique and I am loving my dream everyday. It brings me a different challenge in terms of, you know, being a conductor is more than what you see on the podium. Even though it takes so much time getting to that point. Understanding the composers, understanding the notes. Bigger picture, you know, how do you make this art form relevant? With the audience, with being a spokesperson for this art form every way you can. And so, I am loving my, what I do, that’s the most important, and loving the wonderful mission that Chicago has given me to champion diversity throughout the world.
John Gardner: I’m so thankful to you. Our organization, our audience is so thankful for what you do. And thank you so much for your time today. I’ve just loved speaking with you.
Mei-Ann Chen: Well, it’s my greatest pleasure, and thank you for what you do with your audience around the world.
(Outro Music Plays)
John Gardner: I get it! I understand much better now the role of the conductor, Western Classical music. Next time I see a live performance, I’m going to appreciate much more what’s happening up there and I understand it now through the lens of a manager, as an executive director, it comes down to leadership, communication, so much goes into it. Fantastic conversation. If you want to find out more about Mei-Ann Chen, simply go to her website MeiAnnChen.com. Of course, you can go to our website and see links about this conversation, a lot of musical terms thrown around today. Every musical term that was mentioned has a link to a definition or an example at WMFPodcast.org/11. Please remember to listen widely, open ears equals open minds. We’ll catch you next time.
For The Extra Curious
ABOUT OUR GUEST
0:19 Mei-Ann Chen
0:29 The World Music Foundation
1:33 Western Classical
4:00 Thais Meditation: by Jules Massenet
5:39 Helen Quach (Guō Mei Jen)
7:10 Note Sight Reading
8:21 National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra
12:23 Taiwanese Folk
13:19 Minga 校園民歌
16:27 Pentatonic Scale
17:46 Claude Debussy
17:47 La Mer
18:02 Joseph Maurice Ravel
18:03 Mother Goose Suite
18:15 Giacomo Puccini
18:29 Mo Li Hua: The Jasmine Flower
25:46 Antonin Dvorak
25:47 Symphony No. 9 in E minor (New World Symphony)
25:47 Carnegie Hall
26:17 African Music
27:03 American Youth Orchestra
27:13 Benjamin Zander
27:44 Henryk Wieniawski
28:43 Music Score
28:44 Gustav Mahler
28:44 Mahler’s Symphony #5
29:40 Stand Partner
32:17 Music Teacher
32:44 Assistant Conductor
32:49 Music Director
32:54 Guest Conductor
33:18 Memphis Symphony
33:28 Chicago Sinfonietta
34:35 Project W
34:55 Cidille Records
35:39 Project 19
36:34 Diwali Festival
37:04 Maestro Paul Freeman
37:55 Project Inclusion Freeman Fellowships
38:37 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
43:23 Concertino For Cell Phone And Orchestra
47:08 Beethoven’s “5th”
47:28 Felix Mendelssohn
47:28 The Hebrides Overture (aka Fingal’s Cave)”
50:51 Modest Mussorgsky
51:07 Jennifer Koh
51:13 Courtney Bryan
51:38 Maurice Ravel
53:29 Jennifer Higdon
53:34 Reena Esmail
53:34 Florence Price
54:04 Dora Pejacevic
1:00:01 New York Philharmonic
1:02:19 Chicago Symphony
1:02:24 Florence Price
1:03:05 Yo-Yo Ma
1:03:42 Harp Glissando
1:03:49 Eighth note
1:03:56 Principle harp
1:05:00 Berlin Philharmonic
1:05:04 Claudio Abbado
1:09:09 Portland Youth Orchestra
1:09:35 Rite of spring
1:16:40 Chicago Sinfonietta