MEMPHIS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
said this weekend’s concerts will give young players a unique opportunity. “We are actually preparing them to play with professionals onstage, together,” she said. “The expectations are very high-level.”
Deborah, who has been studying violin since she was 9, said she enjoys the “challenge” of the music. “I feel like if I can do this, I can do anything.”
Born in Kaohsiung, the second-most populous city in Taiwan, Chen was immediately attracted to music. Encouraged by her educator parents, she began taking piano and violin lessons at age 7.
At 10, she was invited to play with an orchestra onstage. She describes this circumstance as “the light-bulb moment” in which she suddenly realized she wanted to be a conductor, “so I could play the biggest instrument in the room” — the orchestra. Because there was greater opportunity for female conductors in the U.S. than in Asia, “I realized America is the place for my dream.”
Chen came to the U.S. as a teenager to study, and she has collected scholarships and prizes and degrees and doctorates ever since, working as a conductor or assistant conductor with ensembles in Portland, Baltimore and elsewhere before being recruited in 2010 to be the fourth conductor and music director in the now 62-year history of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
Many people don’t realize that being a conductor in a midsize city such as Memphis is not necessarily a full-time job. The past few seasons, Chen also has worked as music director for the Chicago Sinfonietta, an orchestra with a special emphasis on “inclusiveness” — an emphasis that also has become increasingly important for the Memphis Symphony and its players, First Tennessee Masterworks Concert Series: Works by Mahler, Borodin, VaughanWilliams. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, 255 N. Main. Tickets: $15 to $85. 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Germantown Performing Arts Center, 1801 Exeter. Tickets: $45. Visit memphissymphony. org, or call (901) 5372525.
who spend much of their time in the schools and other “non-venue” spaces.
A drawback to being in the U.S., however, is that Chen has been able to see her aging parents in Taiwan only about once a year. (At one point, she went five years without seeing them, she said.) That is one of the primary reasons last year she decided to leave the MSO and accept a job as artistic director and conductor of the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Orchestra Festival in Taichung.
Another reason is less flattering for Memphis: Chen said the decreasing number of flights out of Memphis International Airport made it extremely difficult for her to meet her increasing number of international engagements. She said that in the past few years she has spent about 18 weeks a year in Memphis, 12 weeks in Chicago and much of the rest of the time conducting in other cities, “with 15 to 20 orchestras a year.” She currently has gigs set in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Austria and Germany, she said, plus a return engagement at the famous Concertgebouw in the Netherlands. Being based in Memphis made such a schedule difficult, she said.
Gayle S. Rose, chair of the Memphis Symphony board, called Chen “a shooting star” whose presence ensured the orchestra’s artistic credibility even as the board was battling several financial crises. “We knew when we hired her that she was a talent that was going places.”
Rose said Chen’s departure is particularly “bittersweet” because it comes at a time of potential economic stability for the symphony, thanks to the organizations’s recently announced partnership with the University of Memphis.
“Unlike many conductors I’ve witnessed, MeiAnn has a passion that runs through her veins, that communicates not only to the musicians, but to the audience,” Rose said.
“She gives every fiber of her being to every performance. People may not notice that a lot of times when she conducts, she conducts from memory,” without consulting the sheet music, “and a lot of conductors can’t do that. So then there’s nothing between her interpretation of that music and the musicians themselves.”
At this weekend’s concerts, Chen will be made MSO “conductor laureate,” which Rose called “an honorific title that says we want her to come back and guest-conduct. Because this is where her career was really founded, where she got her chance.”
Chen said she’ll welcome any opportunity to return.
“When you love a place, it’s never easy to say goodbye. You cannot come to a place like this and not take away some of the soul of the city. I am forever Memphian. So this is not goodbye, but more of a ‘See y’all later.’”