Saturday, October 22, 2011

Taiwanese Chicago

Chen became the Portland Youth Philharmonic's fourth conductor in 2002. During her five-year tenure, the orchestra debuted at Carnegie Hall, earned an ASCAP award in 2004 for innovative programming, and began collaborating with the Oregon Symphony and Chamber Music Northwest. She also served as assistant conductor of the Oregon Symphony from 2003 to 2005 and as cover conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2005 Chen became the first woman to win the Malko Competition, which recognizes young conductors. That same year she won the Taki Concordia Fellowship. Chen left the Philharmonic in 2007 to become assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony. Chen served as assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for its 2009–2010 season. She was appointed music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra; her three-year tenure began in September 2010. Chen also began serving as music director for the Chicago Sinfonietta during its 2010–2011 season.
Native to Taiwan, Mei-Ann Chen wanted to be a conductor since she was ten years old. She began playing violin and piano starting at a young age with the support of her parents, and later taught herself to play the trumpet. However, Chen's parents also discouraged her from pursuing conducting as they felt it would be a difficult career path for a woman. She was "fascinated" with the concept of making elaborate noise, especially without the use of an instrument. Chen would observe her conductor very closely and began to learn how to conduct on her own. She collected batons, believing that "different pieces needed different kinds of batons". Chen left Kaohsiung to study music in Taipei. There, she lived with her aunt and served as assistant conductor of her school's chorus.
In 1989 Chen attended a concert in Taipei by the American Youth Orchestra, a touring ensemble of Boston's New England Conservatory. Following the performance, Chen's accompanist escorted her backstage, introduced her to the conductor and asked if she could play for him. Chen's opportunity came the next morning when she played for conductor Benjamin Zander in a closed basement hotel bar and was offered a scholarship immediately. She performed with the American Youth Orchestra before being invited to attend the Walnut Hill School, a preparatory school linked to the New England Conservatory, two months later at age sixteen. She left her parents, who thought she would study to become a concert violinist, and for more than three years lived with a couple in Boston she referred to as her "American parents" (Mark Churchill and Marylou Speaker Churchill, the latter of which was once a member of the Portland Junior Symphony). Chen continued her undergraduate and graduate work at the Conservatory. Speaker taught Chen, who also received violin instruction from James Buswell and Eric Rosenblith as well as conducting supervision from Frank Battisti and Richard Hoenich. Chen became the first person to graduate from the New England Conservatory with a double master's degree in conducting and violin performance and received two honors from the institution: the Chadwick Medal for outstanding undergraduate work and the Schuller Medal for "extraordinary contribution to musical life in the community".

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Chen remained in Boston for nine years until she attended the University of Michigan, where she studied with Kenneth Kiesler and Martin Katz, to obtain a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting. There she served as music director of the campus orchestras and conductor for the Arbor Opera Theater. Chen has admitted that she obtained the doctorate degree was because she was not receiving any job offers and that she questioned whether she was being rejected because she was "young, a woman, Asian, or combination of all three."

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In 2001, while attending the University of Michigan, Chen guest conducted the Toledo Symphony Orchestra's "Halloween Spooktacular" concert. That same year she was the youngest finalist in the Maazel-Vilar Conductor's Competition in Tokyo. Leonard Slatkin invited Chen in 2002 to conduct the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center in the National Conducting Institute. Chen received a fellowship to study at the Aspen Music Festival and School with David Zinman. The following year the American Symphony Orchestra League (now known as the League of American Orchestras) invited Chen to be showcased at the National Conductor Preview.
Chen became the Portland Youth Philharmonic's (PYP) fourth conductor in 2002 after being selected by a committee of "musically inclined" parents, a member of the orchestra, and representatives of the Oregon Symphony and Portland Opera. She conducted both the Philharmonic ensemble as well as the Conservatory Orchestra. One board member of the organization recalled that during her audition Chen very quickly captured the rapport of the orchestra and displayed "wonderful communication skills and genuineness".

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"I pushed [musicians of the Portland Youth Philharmonic] quite hard, but at the same time I was doing that for them, they helped me find my own voice. There is something so genuine about young people making music with their entire heart. Portland took a chance on me and helped me realize my goals. I couldn't have asked for more." During her five-year tenure with the organization, PYP debuted at Carnegie Hall, received its third ASCAP award in 2004 for innovating programming, and began collaborating with the Oregon Symphony (Chen was the ensemble's assistant conductor from 2003 to 2005) and Chamber Music Northwest. In April 2005 Chen became the first woman to win the Malko Competition, the "world's most prestigious prize" for young conductors. She also won the Taki Concordia Fellowship in 2007, an award established by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop to support "promising" female conductors. Chen was presented the Sunburst Award from Young Audiences for her contribution to music education and was named "Educator of the Week" by KKCW. While conductor of the Philharmonic, Chen set up a box in her office so that students could leave notes for her about themselves. One musician of the orchestra felt that Chen was "kind of formal" during rehearsal but felt "like a big sister" once practice ended. Chen has been described as a "firecracker: small, bright and full of ka-boom", and her enthusiasm at times caused her to lose her breath. One board member of the organization praised Chen's attitude and felt that her lack of ego was a "rare quality in top symphony performers".

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