New conductor exudes verve and vision
Mei-Ann Chen brings her own youthfulness to youth philharmonic
The search ended with a collective 'Aha!'
A committee made up of musically inclined parents, an orchestra member and envoys from the Oregon Symphony and Portland Opera selected Mei-Ann Chen from 112 candidates as the new conductor and musical director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic. Chen fills the spot left by Huw Edwards, who left to take a job with the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Portland's youth philharmonic is a 78-year-old institution. Students travel from all over the region to audition for a spot in this first-class assemblage. The musicians earn a chair based on their performing talent.
The venerable philharmonic has three ensembles, all led by Chen. She conducts both the top group, the Portland Youth Philharmonic, with more than 100 musicians, and the Portland Youth Conservatory Orchestra, with about 80. There's also the Young String Ensemble, which has between 40 and 50 musicians Ñ some of whom are so young that their legs don't touch the ground.
Chen, just 29 herself, is the first person ever to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music with a double master's degree in violin performance and conducting.
The young overachiever came to town at the end of September Ñ and hit the ground running. She and her charges began rehearsing straight away at Glencoe Elementary School in Southeast Portland for 'Symphonic Explorations,' their ambitious fall concert.
When conducting, Chen is a firecracker: small, bright and full of ka-boom. Occasionally, she interrupts the students' playing with, 'Guys, guys Ñ please, no socializing. Just so you know, we have a concert in two weeks. Please. Don't give me a heart attack.'
Other times, she encourages the musicians to push harder: 'Make it obnoxious. Just go for it Ñ no backing away.'
'Oboes,' she says, singling out the woodwinds, and gesturing as if her heart was overflowing, 'Please, I cannot get enough of you.'
Chen is from Taiwan. She auditioned with a traveling youth orchestra as a teenager and was invited to attend the New England Conservatory. She left her beloved parents and moved to Boston to board with a couple she now calls her American parents.
'Out of breath'
The fall concert, like all of those performed by PYP, is hardly kid stuff.
During evening rehearsals, a few parents sit in the balcony, typing on laptops and reading books. Down below, the auditorium is alive and kicking.
Chen leads the orchestra in Brahm's Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73. The concert also includes Mozart's 'Overture to the Marriage of Figaro,' Respighi's 'Pines of Rome' and contemporary composer John Adams' 'The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra.'
'We do so much music, it is amazing. Sometimes she's out of breath,' says cellist Brian Pfeiffer, 17, a third-year member of PYP and a sophomore at Clackamas High School.
During rehearsal, Pfeiffer says Chen is 'kind of formal.' But once practice ends, he says, she encourages her charges to treat her like a big sister.
Chen also has set up a box in her office so that the musicians can leave notes about themselves to help her get to know them.
George Reinmiller, a PYP board member and former PYP trombonist, praises Chen's attitude, remarking that her lack of ego is a rare quality in top symphony performers.
'It's amazing,' he says, recalling Chen's audition for the job. 'It took her about two minutes to capture the rapport of the orchestra. She has wonderful communication skills and genuineness. She just shines out to the students. They trust her and give to her. The other candidates didn't have that.'
Reinmiller says the job boiled down to two finalists: Chen and one other woman. He describes both as 'pristine candidates,' but said the orchestra seemed unresponsive to the other conductor.
'Mei-Ann, on the other hand, stepped up on that podium, and within three minutes you could tell that the trust and rapport had been established,' he says. 'The orchestra just went to work for her.'
Chen admits that the fall concert is a challenging 80 minutes of music. Neither she nor the students appear to be intimidated.
How do the musicians like playing modern composers such as Adams? Chen laughs and says: 'They were all whining and groaning at first. I got an e-mail from a student, and he wrote that 'no one in their right mind would listen to such music.''
Eventually, they came around.
Adams' piece, written in 1982, is about Richard Nixon's trip to China: 'It's like a fantasy of Mao and his wife dancing, with a fox trot for orchestra.'
Chen has longed to be a conductor since age 10. She was already playing violin and piano, and later, she taught herself to play the trumpet, but she was fascinated by the idea of making more elaborate noise Ñ especially without using an instrument.
Chen's parents encouraged her violin playing while she also pursued academics, nearly getting sidetracked by the earth sciences. When she played she would watch the conductor so closely that she began to teach herself how it was done.
'I used to collect batons because I believed different pieces needed different kinds of batons,' Chen says. 'But I realized you have to be comfortable and that it can be different for everyone. Right now, I think of it like a puppet. It's important when you need the orchestra to really be together to convey the clarity of the music. Sometimes I don't want it, and I can convey more with my body language.'
Though Chen is new to town, she's already painfully aware of school budget cuts.
'One day, before our rehearsal at Glencoe, they told us we didn't need to put the room back the way it was when we were through, like we usually did,' she says. 'We
didn't need to because the other teacher wasn't coming back.
'I can assure you,' Chen says of the accumulative effects of such cuts, 'that it will have a tremendous impact on our younger generations.'
'That inside part,' as Chen calls creativity, 'is so important. To discover their creativity inside, they have to have a chance to go deep and find it.'
Chen's choice for a second career would be detective.
Music, she explains, isn't so different from a puzzling case. It has mystery and surprises but can never really be solved.