Editor's note: This is the first of three profiles of candidates for the job of music director and conductor of the Britt Orchestra. The remaining candidates will be profiled in the next two weeks.
Changing air quality and weather forecasts have prompted Britt Festivals to move Saturday's performance back to the Britt Gardens in Jacksonville. Friday's show was held indoors at South Medford High School.
Mei-Ann Chen remembers the exact moment she knew she wanted to be a symphony orchestra conductor.
"I was playing in an orchestra for the first time as a 10-year-old violinist," she says. "When I saw this person on the podium it was a light bulb moment. I ran home and told my parents I wanted to be a conductor."
That was almost 30 years ago in Taiwan, where with the encouragement of her parents, she studied violin and piano. She went on to become the first student to graduate from the New England Conservatory in Boston, with a double master's degree in conducting and violin performance, and later earned a doctorate from the University of Michigan. "I was one stubborn girl who didn't take no for an answer," she says.
Now the Music Director of both the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta, Mei-Ann (pronounced MAY-en) Chen, who led the 90-member orchestra Friday and will do so again tonight, is the first of three finalists competing for the job of music director and conductor of the Britt Orchestra. Britt is calling 2013 its "passing the baton" season following the departure of Peter Bay after 20 years of leading the summer festival.
Chen says she sees conducting as a form of communication and a way to connect with as many people as possible. She says her dream of conducting was a desire to be part of "something greater than myself."
Her visit to Oregon is a homecoming of sorts, since she served from 2002 to 2007 as music director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic and assistant conductor of the Oregon Symphony, leading the orchestra's Carnegie Hall debut and winning an ASCAP award for innovative programming. She also knew Britt founder John Trudeau in Portland.
She has since appeared with the Rochester Philharmonic and the symphonies of Alabama, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Colorado, Columbus, Edmonton (Canada), Florida, Fort Worth, Nashville, National (Washington, D.C.), Oregon, Pacific, Pasadena, Phoenix, Seattle and Toronto, as well as symphonies in Denmark, Scotland, Mexico, Norway and elsewhere.
The League of American Orchestras gave her the prestigious Helen M. Thompson Award at their 2012 national conference in Dallas. The honor goes every two years to a music director "the potential for an important national and/or international career."
She says she wound up throwing her hat in the Britt ring through the efforts of others.
"To be honest, it was the musicians of other orchestras who also play with Britt that recommended my name. They contacted me and asked if I'd be interested. They were telling me how special this place is, a place to recharge. Everybody talks about it in such a special way."
She says the secret of programming classical programs and seasons is to realize that each community is different.
"It's important to protect our artistic integrity," she says. "But at the same time look at embracing a wider audience. It's important to make Britt a sustainable model. That would be my goal."
She says she wouldn't advance specific ideas for Britt's educational mission until she knows the community.
"I'm looking forward to brainstorming meetings," she says. "In Chinese there's a saying: 'Three shoemakers are wiser than one Confucius,' meaning collective wisdom."
In Memphis she took such innovative measures as inviting a marching band to march down the aisles of the symphony, inviting a children's choir to perform and presenting a Spanish dance group. Although she's used to Chicago and Memphis, she says she would enjoy the challenge of a smaller community.
"It's all about personal connections to the organization and the performers," she says. "Having a vision is important, but how to get there is different for every community."
Chen worked with Britt's Angela Warren on programming her two concerts, taking into consideration such factors as the scope of the orchestra and its instrumentation, and not repeating works from recent programs.
"I pitched some ideas," she says. "The two (Friday and Saturday concerts) are pretty close. They're pieces dear to my heart."
Her Friday program consisted of the Chinese composer Huang's Saibei Dance, Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. Today's program is Bernstein's "Three Dance Episodes from 'On the Town,' " Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm Variations," Lutoslawski's "Variations on a Theme of Paganini" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.
A connection between the concerts has to do with the guest stars, John Kimura Parker Friday and Ian Parker Saturday. The Canadian pianists are cousins.
Chen says there is no single magic bullet to revitalize classical music as American orchestras face shrinking audiences and budget problems. In Memphis she tapped into youth groups and communities that don't consider symphonies a natural collaborator, increasing attendance there. In Chicago her audience is actually getting younger.
She has introduced techno music, circus acts, percussion soloists and the hip young Brooklyn jazz/hip-hop/rock group Project Trio to draw crowds, but she says, "What I'd do at Britt is different from what I'd do in Chicago." On her schedule are debuts with the Chicago Symphony subscription series, the San Francisco Symphony Chinese New Year Celebration, North Carolina Symphony, San Diego Symphony, São Paulo Symphony in Brazil and the Tampere Philharmonic in Finland.
Tickets are $28 to $42 at Britt, 216 W Main St., Medford. Call 541-773-6077 or visit Brittfest.org.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.