|Alma mater||University of Michigan|
Mei-Ann Chen (simplified Chinese: 陈美安; traditional Chinese: 陳美安; pinyin: Chén Měi-ān; born 1973) is a Taiwanese American conductor currently serving as music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta and formerly of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. She has been described as "one of the most dynamic young conductors in America". Encouraged by her parents, Chen began playing violin and piano at a young age and later taught herself how to play the trumpet. By observing her conductor, she began to teach herself how to conduct and even collected batons. From age sixteen, Chen attended the Walnut Hill School, a preparatory school affiliated with the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts. She continued her undergraduate and advanced degree work at the Conservatory and became the first student to graduate from the institution with a double master's degree in conducting and violin performance. Chen later obtained a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Michigan.
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. She 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 and was renewed for an additional three years in 2012. Chen also began serving as music director for the Chicago Sinfonietta during its 2010–2011 season.
Throughout her career, Chen has appeared with the following symphonies throughout the United States and Canada: Alabama, Chautauqua, Chicago, Colorado, Columbus, Edmonton, Eugene, Florida, Fort Worth, Grand Teton Festival Orchestra, Honolulu, Kalamazoo, National (Washington, D.C.), Pacific, Phoenix, Princeton, Rochester, Seattle, Toledo, Toronto, and Tucson. Appearances outside North America include all of the principal Danish orchestras, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the Graz Symphony Orchestra, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra (Taiwan), the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. Chen has also participated in the National Conducting Institute (Washington, D.C.) as well as the American Academy of Conducting in Aspen, Colorado. During the 2011–2012 season, Chen will debut with the Jacksonville, Naples, Nashville, Pasadena, and Sarasota symphony orchestras, as well as the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.
Early life and education
A native of Taiwan, Mei-Ann Chen wanted to be a conductor since she was ten years old. At a young age she began playing violin and piano 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 intrigued with the concept of making elaborate noise, particularly without the use of an instrument. Chen would observe her conductor 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, who 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".
Chen remained in Boston for nine years until she attended the University of Michigan to obtain a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting. There she studied with Kenneth Kiesler and Martin Katz, served as music director of the campus orchestras, and also became conductor for the Arbor Opera Theater. Chen said she pursued the doctorate degree because she did not receive any job offers and she questioned whether that was due to her being "young, a woman, Asian, or the combination of all three."
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. In 2002, Leonard Slatkin invited Chen 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.
Portland Youth Philharmonic
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 of the organization's board member's recalled that during her audition Chen very quickly captured the rapport of the orchestra and displayed "wonderful communication skills and genuineness".
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 in 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 of the organization's board members praised Chen's attitude and felt that her lack of ego was a "rare quality in top symphony performers".
Chen turned down a position with the Oregon Symphony to continue work at PYP, later recalling:
They became my kids, they were no way (sic) for me to give them up. So I made a very unusual decision. I gave up my professional position with the Oregon Symphony, I stayed with the youth orchestra. People thought that I was crazy that I stayed with a youth orchestra instead of pursuing a more professional opportunity. Because I told you my life story, and a youth orchestra changed my life and gave me the chance to fulfill my dreams, I feel working with young musicians is a way for me to give back. It changed my life and I would like to do my part to change other people's lives.
In 2007, she accompanied the orchestra on an international tour to Asia, where her parents saw her conduct for the first time. The Philharmonic offered a total of six performances between June 29 and July 17 in Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taipei, Taiwan as well as in Seoul and Ulsan, South Korea. Though Chen initially thought she would remain with the Philharmonic for ten years, she left in 2007 to become assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony. She said of her departure: "The musicians at PYP have become my kids. When I look back, these five years will always be the most memorable time of my musical career." Guest conductors during the 2007–2008 season included Ken Selden, director of orchestral studies at Portland State University, former Seattle Symphony conductor Alastair Willis, along with former PYP conductors Huw Edwards and Chen herself.
Baltimore, Memphis, Chicago
Chen served as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's cover conductor during her tenure with PYP. Following her departure, she became assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony for two seasons (2007–2009). In April 2009 Chen withdrew her candidacy for music director of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra. Her next role was assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the 2009–2010 season, though she never led a subscription program and mostly conducted programs for children. Both positions were sponsored by the League of American Orchestras. Following successful auditions held in December 2006, she was formally appointed music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in February 2010, becoming the organization's fourth. Chen's three-year tenure began in September 2010. Chen's contract was renewed for an additional three years in 2012, extending her leadership through the 2015–2016 season. In February 2015 it was announced that Chen would be leaving the orchestra when her contract ends in May 2016.
In October 2010 Chen returned to the New England Conservatory to guest conduct the Philharmonia. Chen dedicated the concert to the late Marylou Speaker Churchill, and thanked Benjamin Zander and dean emeritus Mark Churchill for "making her career possible". Chen began serving as music director for the Chicago Sinfonietta during its 2010–2011 season. Her belief that "multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion are increasingly global matters" is partly why she accepted a position with the Chicago Sinfonietta, one of the nation's most diverse orchestras with a "strong focus on black and Latino musicians, composers and audience members". Her four-year contract with the Sinfonietta began on July 1, 2011. Chen recorded a commercial album with the Sinfonietta released on May 28, 2013, entitled Delights & Dances and hopes to launch an international competition for rising musicians and composers.
2015 and later
In December 2015, Musical America named Mei-Ann Chen one of its 2015 "Top 30 Influencers". She was named Conductor Laureate following her six-season tenure as Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in spring 2016. Chen served as Artistic Director and Conductor for the 2016 National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival. Her guest engagements for the 2016-2017 season include debuts and returns to the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra at the Concertgebouw, Sweden’s Malmö SymfoniOrkester, Austria’s Grosses Orchester Graz, Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Tucson Symphony, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, the Knoxville Symphony, the Long Beach Symphony, Houston's River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, as well as both the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan (Taipei) and the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra (Taichung).
As a child Chen was interested in earth science. Chen finds satisfaction in "loud" and "elaborate" noises, particularly ones generated without musical instruments. Her favorite composer is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; other favorites include Ludwig van Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland. Her favorite composition is Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, which she will be conducting during Chicago Sinfonietta's 2011–2012 season. She likes Romantic music the most "because the music in this era was an expression of your life". In addition to working with minority or unconventional artists, Chen prefers to incorporate classic compositions as well as new works into her repertoire. She enjoys reading detective stories, fiction or non-fiction, and has shared that she would want to be a detective or a professor if she were not a conductor. She moved to Mud Island, Memphis in order to be close to nature, inspiration and the Cannon Center.
- List of New England Conservatory people
- List of Taiwanese Americans
- List of University of Michigan arts alumni
- Music education for young children
- Music education in the United States
- Music of Taiwan
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- Sparks, Jon W. (September 12, 2010). "Concert Review: Mei-Ann Chen's debut is sweet music for Memphis Symphony". The Commercial Appeal. Memphis, Tennessee. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
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- Sparks, Jon W. "Memphis Symphony Orchestra Music Director Mei-Ann Chen to Step Down After 2015-16 Season". The Commercial Appeal. The Commercial Appeal. Retrieved November 14, 2016.
- Manning, Bryant. "Sinfonietta's new director Mei Ann-Chen plans 3 world premieres". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
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- "Mei-Ann Chen To Lead Atlanta Symphony Orchestra 10/6, 10/8". Broadway World. Wisdom Digital Media. September 21, 2011. Retrieved September 23, 2011.
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- "Maestro Mei-Ann Chen - Chicago Sinfonietta". Chicago Sinfonietta. Chicago Sinfonietta. Retrieved November 14, 2016.
- "Q & A with the conductors". Portland Youth Philharmonic. Archived from the original on December 20, 2008. Retrieved September 25, 2011.
- Official website
- "Mei-Ann Chen named music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta" by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review (2010)
- "Meet Memphian no. 222, Mei-Ann Chen" (2011)
- "My Thoughts: Symphony, conservatory share same objective" by David Loebel, former music director for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (2010)