On the podium, Mei-Ann Chen, the conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symfonitta, is a veritable Energizer Bunny. Her directing is almost aerobic.
Yet Friday night she kept the 90-member Britt Orchestra balanced even in the most ebullient parts of Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony. The concert, the first of two that Chen will direct, was moved from the Britt hillside in Jacksonville to South Medford High School because of poor air quality from the forest fires burning in Josephine and Douglas counties.
Britt officials said Friday that tonight's (Saturday's) concert has been moved back to the Britt Pavilion in Jacksonville after an improvement in air quality was forecast. That's a good deal for Chen, the first of three finalists vying to take over the Britt Festivals' music director/conductor duties in the last lap of a national search for a new leader after the departure of mega-popular Peter Bay after 20 years.
Lacking the Britt ambiance is only the first issue for a high school gym. The acoustics are not good, with the audience seated on bleachers and the orchestra scrunched into one end of a basketball court. But there always is a little bit of heaven in a disaster area, and the audience gave Chen some extra love, and the orchestra, after two moves in two days, carried on like troupers
Chen began the program with the little known "Saibei Dance," a fanfare by the Chinese composer An-Lun Huang. The piece was written at a time (1975) when China's Cultural Revolution had almost run its course, and Huang was in exile.
Saibei is the land north of the Great Wall, and Huang was living among peasant farmers and was banned from composing under Mao's dictatorship.
The piece is short (under five minutes), with a lively theme introduced by the clarinets and carried forward by flutes and horns. Harvest is a time of celebration, and the music has a celebratory feel.
"That was an exciting piece of music," Chen said in what came off as understatement when it ended. Then, in a nod to her day job in Memphis, she added, "Thank y'all."
Chen and the orchestra were next joined by globe-trotting pianist Jon Kimura Parker, a Britt favorite, for Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." The rhapsody was written for solo piano and symphony orchestra and is close in spirit and form to a concerto as it turns the Paganini on its head. It comprises 24 variations on the last of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin.
After the introduction came the first variation, the theme articulated by the strings and the piano, which wove in and around each other and soon took up the iconic Dies Irae chant from the Mass of the Dead from the Middle Ages.
The work demands extreme technical ability (Rachmaninoff himself admitted to having a nerve-steadying glass of something strong before performing it), but Parker was able to rip off its daunting runs as he hunkered over the keyboard, and thundered out the big chords with enough force to rise off the piano bench.
At the end of the piece he leaped from the piano and hugged Chen. When the crowd wouldn't let him go, Parker brought out his cousin, pianist Ian Parker, Saturday night's guest soloist, for a stirring one-piano, four-hands go at one of Dvorak's Slavic dances.
If Chen has a signature piece, it is reportedly Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. That's the work she conducted in 2005 in Denmark when she became the first woman ever to win that country's prestigious Malko Conducting Competition.
The symphony conjures a musical spirit that wins through in the face of repeated conflicts to a victorious conclusion. Critics didn't much like it, but it became so popular in Russia that the Leningrad Radio Symphony Orchestra played it during the German Siege of Leningrad in World War II, broadcasting it as Nazi bombs were falling on the city.
Under Chen's baton, the symphony took a long (nearly an hour), passionate journey through four movements, Andante, Andante cantabile, Valse: Allegro moderato con Patrioso and the finale, Andante maestoso.
The introduction, according to the composer's notes, suggests fate or predestination. The somewhat ominous main theme is introduced early in the first movement, where there is some lovely clarinet, and is heard in all four movements.
A catchy melody for the solo horn is a highlight of the melodic second movement, along with gorgeous strings and woodwinds. The waltz In the third was played with lyricism, and there were echoes of the tragic first, but with less darkness.
Chen approaches Tchaikovsky without any of the sentimentality some conductors lavish on him, but there was plenty of bombast as the symphony's movement went from the tragic to the triumphant. Tchaikovsky himself had doubts about the work's sincerity, and in some passages there is a sort of bang-you-over-the-head quality about it, but it is undeniably exciting when directed with Chen's absolute conviction.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.