Music Director and Conductor
July 24, 2023 | 43:33
Taiwanese American conductor Mei-Ann Chen joins The Active Share podcast with as much energy and enthusiasm as she brings to the orchestra. As the music director for the Chicago Sinfonietta and chief conductor of recreation of the Grosses Orchester Graz at Styriarte in Austria, Mei-Ann has broken barriers as the first female Asian conductor in this role. Tune in as she shares her journey, her unique approach to conducting, and the power of music in connecting humanity.
|Host Hugo Scott-Gall introduces today’s guest, Mei-Ann Chen.
|Mei-Ann Chen shares how and when she decided she wanted to be a conductor.
|The template for a good conductor.
|The formula for training young conductors.
|The audience’s reaction and how that affects the performance.
|The characteristics of talented musicians.
|Why are there more male conductors than females?
|The future of music.
|Has there been a change in live performances since the pandemic?
|Mei-Ann’s advice for anyone wanting to pursue a dream in music.
|Other types of music Mei-Ann enjoys.
|Pieces of music Mei-Ann would take with her on a deserted island.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Today I have with me Taiwanese American conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. Mei-Ann is acclaimed for infusing orchestras with energy, enthusiasm, and high-level music making. She is currently music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta and has been Chief Conductor of Austria’s recreation – Grosses Orchestra Graz at Styriarte since fall 2021, making her the first female Asian conductor to hold this position with an Austrian orchestra.
She also serves as the first ever artistic partner of Houston’s River Oaks Chamber Orchestra. She has appeared with distinguished orchestras throughout the Americas, Europe, Taiwan, the UK, and Scandinavia, and continues to expand her relationships with orchestras worldwide. Thank you very much for coming on the show. It’s a pleasure to have you here
Mei-Ann Chen: And it’s a pleasure for me to be on this show. Thank you so much.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Great. Well, let’s get going. Well, I’m very excited. You are the first musician we’ve had on our show, and so I’ve got lots of questions for you around leadership, around talent, around your journey, around the future of music. I’m also going to ask you, in the UK, we have a very popular show called “Desert Island Discs,” where important and interesting people are asked, “If you were marooned on a desert island, what are the eight pieces of music you would take with you?” So, I’m going to leave that with you and then ask you at the end because that’s always—it’s a fun one.
So, let’s start with your journey as a conductor, your journey to being a conductor. How and where and why do you think you developed your passion for music and conducting, and when did you kind of know this is what you wanted to do?
Mei-Ann Chen: Well, that’s a great question and it’s such an honor for me to be the first musician on your podcast. Very quick answer to your wonderful question is that I grew up with parents who loved music and never had the chance to be trained as musicians themselves, so they bestow upon my older sister and me their dreams of wanting to have, well, free concerts at home. Very naive parents. And so, my sister ended up playing the violin. They wanted me to accompany her, and my sister was really a virtual artist at heart. She’d rather create in her own space and share when she’s ready. So, I ended up with the double duty of entertaining my parents.
Now, the very first time when I played in the orchestra as a shy violinist at age 10, I ran home. I told my parents, “Violin and piano are fun, but I really want to play the largest instrument in the room.” So, they frowned and look worried. They didn’t know where to get me teachers and they were absolutely right. It wasn’t something you can learn. So, I was one stubborn girl who took no for answer. So, I would show up in my rehearsal, having my violin part completely memorized, given that it’s probably very simple, I would fix my eyes on the conductor to try to learn from observation. So, he looked around, all the kids were very into the music, not knowing I was trying to steal his craft at age 10.
Hugo Scott-Gall: And so, are you one of those people, one of those lucky people who always knew? So, clearly you had a passion for music and that came from your home environment. But did you think, “This is something I love, but this might not be what I do for rest of my life.” Or did you feel very strongly, “I found my thing.” “This is what I want to do.” And everything else kind of falls by the wayside.
Mei-Ann Chen: Actually, at age 10, “That’s my calling.” I knew I wanted to be a conductor; I just didn’t know being a conductor requires me to talk a whole lot later. I thought I could communicate through body language, and it was just something that I was so fascinated by. And I got myself as much training as I could.
And then there was a youth orchestra from America that came to my native country, Taiwan, and the conductor, actually a British conductor, worked for a long time in Boston. His name is Benjamin Zander, and he heard me play for him when the Youth Orchestra from New England Conservatory was touring in Asia. And he was very brave. He offered my parents a scholarship on the spot and said, “If you like your daughter to study violin in Boston, I will find her a scholarship.”
And so, I tricked my parents into giving me a ticket to come to America so I can finally learn conducting.
Hugo Scott-Gall: And if you had to break down the skills of a conductor, clearly you need to be a supremely talented musician. But there’s a lot more to it, I suspect, because there’s people in there, there’s leadership in there, there’s communication. And I imagine there’s quite a lot more as well that I’m missing. So, could you talk about kind of the template for a really good conductor. What goes in?
Mei-Ann Chen: Yeah. So, you know, what drew me to conducting was the physical aspect that is very obvious to everybody. I just thought, “Well, I heard music, and my body wants to move.” And that was just kind of an instinctive reaction, but I realize later that being a good conductor, as you put it, requires so much more because my instruments are live human beings that comes with different moods, different feelings.
And when you put close to 80 to 100 people in a room trying to create a unified interpretation, that’s really interesting because everybody has got their own idea of tempo, of how loud they should be playing here, so it’s also a lesson of psychology. “How do I manage all this team of creative individuals and mold it into something of a unified voice?”
And to be given basically what I call, “speed dating the orchestra” when you are a guest conductor or even my music directorship with Chicago Sinfonietta. We get three rehearsals only before the first performance. And in the UK, sometimes you get one or two rehearsals. And so, that’s really speed dating in terms of there’s a lot at play, and how do you manage all that talent.
And also, what you believe the composer is trying to say and morph into something meaningful at the performance.
Hugo Scott-Gall: But I imagine that there’s really quite a difference in skills required to take a piece of music, to interpret it in the way that you want to do it, and obviously that’s a creative process and analytical process. Then to communicate that, as you were just saying, to communicate that to a group of people who you may not know at all well or have never met before. There’s a whole range of skills in there, right? There’s the analytical, there’s a creative, and there’s how to communicate, then there’s how to read pretty quickly to assess people very quickly to see what they’re capable of, and certainly work out what’s the best way to communicate to them.
So, I’m super interested in how you’ve kind of—have you learned by doing? Because the people side—so, you’re a brilliant musician and that’s your life’s passion, that’s beyond question. But the people side, are you specifically trained in that or are you just learning by doing and seeing how people respond and think, “Well, that didn’t work, I won’t do that again.” Or “That clearly did work.” So, I’m just kind of interested in how you got skilled at that side.
Mei-Ann Chen: Oh, I think people don’t realize that the training for conducting is exactly like you put it. I mean, you learn on the job. And so, it’s very catch-22. If you are not getting opportunities to be in front of a group, how do you learn the skills of managing talented people. And so, I basically had to learn from being given opportunities and learning really quickly in terms of, “How do you manage that whole process?”
And when you’re given such a limited time with so many notes, what’s the pacing of the rehearsals? How do you read the room? And you’re in London, I am talking from Chicago, but literally I’m taking off to conduct my orchestra in Austria. I mean, there’s this other complex cultural competency in terms of when you’re working in UK and America, as I’m now training, I’ve turned the table around.
I benefit so much from another wonderful mentor of mine, Marin Alsop, who is now being given an appointment in London. And she has taught me, “You have to be very efficient in rehearsals, especially in UK and American orchestras.” And so, I’ve turned that table to try to come up with a formula to train our young conductors and literally nobody talks about this.
And so, I said, “The formula is really easy, but it’s hard to achieve. But once you have the formula, you have to practice at it.” Because people think you just come on the podium and start talking or rehearsing. But in America or in UK, if you talk more than 10 words when the orchestra stops, they start writing you off because they want to see what you can do with your hands.
So, my formula, for those of you who are interested in this, it’s really simple, but it’s a hard exercise. So, they’re four elements within 10 words. A limit of 10 words. So, where is it that we’re starting? Who is involved? Those two are very easy. The musical intent, which is hard to do with two or three words, followed by technical help. Meaning, “How do I play this thing? Louder, softer, more legato.” But the musical intent is hard to get. How do you inspire the musicians with just one or two words to give them the musical imagination?
And so, I have the luxury in Germany and Austria, the orchestras there, they give me a lot more rehearsals. Sometimes six to eight rehearsals. And if you talk really quick and really short and then they’re like, “Wait, there’s a lot more time.”
And so, it’s interesting how do you pace yourself in different countries, even though the art form is almost exactly the same? I mean, they still respond to your gestures on the podium, but the human side is a lot more than I learned later from the experience.
Hugo Scott-Gall: That’s really interesting what you say about cultural competency or different ways of doing things because music is music wherever you go, right? Beautifully played violin sounds the same and doesn’t respect borders, nationalities, or history. So, I’m super interested in how you kind of are able to quickly assess different ways of doing things, different ways of communicating as you operate with people who are producing a very almost identical sound, but they’re coming from different cultural backgrounds and different ways of, I guess, doing things.
So, that must mean you have to learn very quickly on your feet as we said already, but I guess it also means that you have to think about the people behind you, the audience, as well, and you have to have a feel for how different audiences respond.
So, is that part of your kind of overall algorithm as it were? You’re thinking about how you’re going to relate to your musicians, but you’re also thinking about the audience. And so, do you feel that? Can you kind of feel how an audience is receiving something and does that inform your, I guess your analysis, your sort of interpretation of the music? It clearly must feed into it.
Mei-Ann Chen: Yes, and let me put it two ways. I think music is universal and so if you play Beethoven 5 in different countries, you are likely going to get very similar response just because Beethoven is universal in his message. And so, what’s really interesting is the person that has inspired me to think about the audience in general is actually my older sister who grew up, as you heard me, not that she didn’t like the violin, it just wasn’t natural under her chin.
And her natural inclination was always everything but classical music. So, she has exposed me to all kinds of folk music, pop music, rock music, and so we’re the polar opposite, if you will. But sometimes, she was my compass when I’m interpreting something in Beethoven or Dvorak or Tchaikovsky. Something that we thought we know for hundreds of years because I keep thinking the majority of our audience is probably more like my sister, was not trained in terms of analyzing, “Well, here’s the development of the sonata form.”
She’s not thinking about that. She’s thinking about, “Oh my gosh, the orchestra sounded like they’re holding hands, standing at the edge of the cliff.” So, sometimes I do tell the orchestra, “I know you know this music really well, but imagine someone is hearing this for the first time.” “What does this passage mean to them?” And that pushes them, allowing them and pushes them to go the extra mile in terms of, “Okay, we’re not just going to go autopilot.” Because it’s so easy. We have about, I wanted to say maybe 50 to 100 really standard pieces and another fearsome thing that people don’t understand is the orchestra has played 50 times, at least, a Beethoven 5th when this might be only my fifth time conducting it as a young conductor.
And so, I always use an image and this might be fun for business leaders. Orchestra is like a wolf. They smell blood and you’re done. And so, how do you come as a young conductor? What do you think? Here’s a fabulous story to share, a personal story.
So, I’m about to make debut with the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia Festival, it’s their summer home. I conducted them 10 years ago in my subscription debut with them and they were playing Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov, so this is a very well-known piece. They have recorded with some of the best conductors in the world and so, who am I? I approached the harpist after a rehearsal and said, “Would you mind trying to play this crescendo, just one beat later than what the composer wrote.”
And she looked at me with, like, “Well, I’ve recorded this with –” And she started naming the conductors and I’m like, “Well, only if you like to try.” And so, she tried my way the next rehearsal and gave me the biggest smile. She said, “Everybody else should do it this way because then you can hear the harp.” And so, it’s psychology in terms of you have to see if she’s receptive of my ideas that are different from all the other ideas that she has followed through over the years.
And here’s a beautiful example of somehow I won her over and she was able to try my new idea. But if the person is not open, I could have lost. That could be the last time I conducted the Chicago Symphony. So, it’s really an interesting field.
Hugo Scott-Gall: I must admit I’ve never thought of an orchestra as being like a wolf, but I hear you, right? You’re looking at them, they’re looking at you. And they’re trying to suss you out, work you out pretty quickly. But when you think about the most talented musicians that you’ve worked with, what are the characteristics that they all have in common? Because it can’t just be raw talent. Or maybe it is just raw talent, but in doing this podcast and people I’ve met in my life, I’ve never found anyone who says talent’s enough. It’s always talent plus. So, what isn’t talent plus for a great musician?
Mei-Ann Chen: I would say one of my most enduring colleagues of all time has to be Yo-Yo Ma, and the founder of Chicago Sinfonietta Maestro Paul Freeman founded Chicago Sinfonietta to be the most diverse orchestra. But he was the first one to have given Yo-Yo Ma his first professional engagement when Yo-Yo was just a teenager. And so, we have a lot of history with Yo-Yo. And when you look at someone like Yo-Yo, I always try to learn from him that it must be a personal mission to be world’s greatest cellist, but at the same time, his mission has impact–so, there’re two circles.
A small circle is what we want to be, what gets us out of bed every day. But there has to be a bigger circle, which is what I call the “artistic vision.” And his big circle has impacted so much of the world in terms of bringing music as a way to connect humanity, using music to express what human voices are limited to express.
And so, I think I try to learn, “What is my personal mission using conducting as a way to connect with people?” But the bigger mission is, “How can I use that to impact even more people’s lives?” And so, I try to think what my earliest manager always told me, that music is a gift to the community we serve. And so, it’s don’t take it lightly, that it’s all just about notes. I remember as I was beginning to expand from violinist into conducting, and my violin teacher would say, “Well, Mei-Ann, you have all the notes down, but what are you trying to say?” So, what I’m trying to say is that there’s always a bigger mission to what we do.
I mean, we might be tied into our nitty grittys, but we should always keep track of our big artistic vision. How are we trying to impact the world in our role?
Hugo Scott-Gall: Going back to your journey, all right? I’m sure I could be wrong, but my sense is there are many more male conductors than there are female conductors, and you’re, therefore, pretty unusual. How much has that changed and why is that?
Mei-Ann Chen: You’re absolutely right that it’s still a fairly male dominated field, especially on the top. And so, my dear mentor, Ms. Marin Alsop, has broken so many glass ceilings. And she founded the Taki Alsop Fellowship, this year celebrating the 20th anniversary. And so, she has launched so many of our young women conductors’ careers. And it’s really impactful in terms of helping young women to find our own voice in a field that is still very dominated by male conductors.
And so, I think there’s some of us turning that around, you know, the fellowship program, the Freeman Fellowship program that Chicago Sinfonietta has founded, we have launched in my short tenure. I expanded the conducting portion only as of 2014, but we have launched a good dozen of conductors working in the world right now. There’s an assistant conductor working with the Royal Scottish Orchestra, there’s a fellow that’s living in Berlin and that’s conducting all the best orchestras in the world.
And we try to sort of turn what Marin has given me, a route to help conductors of diverse background, which is also occupying very small percentage in the field. And so, we thought by helping the next generation that we could create a ripple effect and maybe someday that we could increase that percentage a lot more.
Hugo Scott-Gall: So, what are the impediments right now?
Obviously, there’s history in your industry, this profession clearly has some, I guess, old-fashioned practices. But now, as of today, what are the remaining impediments that are stopping or preventing or making harder for women to progress as far as men?
Mei-Ann Chen: The symphony orchestra, I have chosen a field that is very much ingrained in traditions and there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, still, I love the old classics and that’s the sort of meat and potatoes of our repertoire. But if you look at pre pandemic time 2019, I think there was a survey, well, women conductors only occupy, I think, less than 10% or 12%. But if you look at women composers, that was even worse. It was less than two percent of the entire repertoire.
And so, my orchestra recorded Project W produced by City Records that’s based in Chicago. But they are an international showcase artist company and it’s amazing that if–those of you who have Spotify, I’m not making this up – if you Google Project W, Chicago Sinfonietta and that first track by Florence Price, who became the first African American woman when Chicago Symphony premiered her symphony in 1933, making her the first African American woman whose work was premiered by a major orchestra.
I can’t believe our first track on Project W on Spotify has over 1.1 million plays. That is really very high for a classical track. And so, I think we seem to tap into this look at this most neglected group of minorities, women composers over the centuries.
And now I’m encouraged to feel that all the major orchestras have tried to raise the percentage a little bit higher. But thanks to organizations like DONNE, D-O-N-N-E, that’s founded by the wonderful Brazilian soprano living in London, Gabriella, who has really sort of called this out among the major orchestras, “Look at the percentage of women composers.” And so, hopefully, collectively, that we can all push this forward because there’s so many hidden gems.
So, here’s an example of the first symphonic composer in Croatia who happened to be a woman, Dora Pejacevic, who died in mid-’30s after giving birth to her son—a year after giving birth to her only son. And she has all these incredible compositions. My orchestra premiered her F# Minor Symphony a hundred years after it was premiered in Europe, we did this in 2018.
Actually, one of our interns would Google all the women composers all over the internet to really compile a list. And so, I didn’t know this name until I saw it on the list and my musician said, “Oh, my gosh, it has shadows of Strauss.” She studied with Strauss, teacher Bruckner, Mahler. And who is this woman? Her music is so strong, and yet nobody plays it. And so, it was wonderful for my orchestra to tap into the hidden gems of the repertoire. And I’m hoping that by recording them and by programming it, that other orchestras would follow suit and also embrace that.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Yeah. So, it sounds like it’s definitely partly a role model issue, but I guess also discovery and there is a sort of paradox there in that music has never been more accessible digitally.
You can find almost any piece of music you want online. So, I’m interested really in your thoughts around sort of the future of music, which is a broad question.
Mei-Ann Chen: Right.
Hugo Scott-Gall: But in theory, it’s easier than ever to find almost any piece of music, whether that is, you know, there are a number of music platforms. Does that make you optimistic or does that kind of make you pessimistic because in other areas you’ve seen there’s in theory, enormous choice, but people just keep reverting to one or two things, the same as everyone else. So, when you think about—it’s probably the wrong term, but classical music, are you optimistic or pessimistic for sort of future awareness, future demand, future consumption?
Mei-Ann Chen: I’m optimistic just because the same conversation has sort of repeated over a long period of time. I mean, 50 years ago, 20 years ago, you could find the same article saying classical music is going to die.
Well, it hasn’t died. And so, I am grateful that it’s still going. I think the question is twofold. I think for those, I started my career working in youth orchestra, so it was a way for me of coming full circle. Youth orchestra brought me out of my native country to pursue further in the West. And so, then I witnessed people who actually make music firsthand.
And so, I think that is a very key point that I want to make is that for people who have experience making music themselves, they become the future consumer of such art form, whether they become professional musicians or not, that is besides the question. But I think so many of what I call my kids ended up still be—they wanted to be part of that, that music making that they understand that is so essential to their lives.
And so, I think we have to do a better job in making sure that we continue that tradition of training them to make music firsthand and not expecting, “Okay, if we just cultivate audiences, they will come.” I think it’s twofold. We have to cultivate music’s role in our young people early on and also, at the same time, for those people who didn’t grow up with classical music, like my sister, for one reason or another, to make classical music relevant to them.
And I can assure you, the same piece of music—I like to compare music with food. I don’t know if it has to do with my great grandfather from southern China was a noodle master that traveled to Taiwan and somehow, that’s how my grandfather sort of ended up in Taiwan.
There’s a great comparison between music and food. So, for example, we don’t have to question about people living on food. Everybody has to eat every day. But we question music, but I think music is the same way in terms of we need it. So, here’s an example. I grew up admiring this story. So, this happened I wanted to say 1948, during that era when the new state of Israel was forming. So, the Israel Philharmonic has to perform.
And this is for Bernstein, so I’ll give you the actual quote of what happened. So, the orchestra and audience, again, were in danger, “An air raid siren went off in the middle of Beethoven concerto that I was conducting from the piano.” Bernstein said when he returned, “We got to the end of the first movement and this thing was wailing and I got up to say, ‘Whoever has to leave, leave now.’”
“And no one left. And I sat down and played what I thought would be my swan song. We came into a kinship, a family relationship, the orchestra members with each other and with me.” And I always remember reading the stories about, I mean, the bomb could fall into the concert hall, and yet people held onto each other through music because they needed that at that moment more than anything.
And so, I think music has a great power, even classical music. And so, I have great hope that if we do the right cultivation of our future generations, our current generations, even our older generations, who tend to understand classical music more than others, I think this art form will thrive. It’s just a matter of how we present it.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Do you think anything has changed post-pandemic?
I think there’s an argument that you can see people more appreciative, keener to participate in live experiences post-pandemic. Because during the pandemic, they realized they miss them and the more people—my view—the more people experience live music, the more they want to hear more live music. If you’ve heard a very good orchestra play, it’s a very different experience from listening to it digitally.
Mei-Ann Chen: Totally.
Hugo Scott-Gall: So, the more people want to do live experiences where you were just talking about, that shared experience is a big thing. And I think music is a key part of the human soul and people love music. It’s in them. But the more they can discover, the more they can experience it live, the more they’ll want to do it, which I think you can make the argument, therefore, that actually live music is due a sort of ongoing renaissance. Do you subscribe to that? Do you think that sort of something happened in the pandemic, yeah?
Mei-Ann Chen: Totally. Yeah, totally. I totally agree. During the pandemic, I mean, I think everybody was staring on the screen for as long as your eyes can take it, or your psyche can take it.
And what’s so interesting, during the pandemic, it was a stressful time because everybody expect perfection. When you see it digitally, you started to notice, “Oh, that is not in tune, that is not together.” But after a while, perfection doesn’t satisfy me anymore. I wanted raw energy. I wanted to be in the room, even when they try to do something and then, like an Olympian sometimes when you push outside your limit, it’s never going to be perfect all the time.
I miss that. Music shouldn’t be just about perfection, you know? Us trained musicians, we become very picky, but I finally realized that music is more than just notes, more than just perfection. Music is communicating what we’re trying to say. And so, I think it’s a big difference in terms of we talk about music and dish.
So, Beethoven 5, you can think of a well-known dish that you have tasted for a long time, but it’s so interesting because at different restaurants that make the same dish could taste totally different. And that’s what different orchestras do for me is that I listened really hard of what the ingredients I get to get. And then I tried to tell them. I mean, yes, every Beethoven 5 I conduct is going to have my flavor, but at the same time, I need their help. I’m not the one making sound. If you hear me in a concert, that’s bad news.
And so, I’m trying to tell the musicians. “Look, you have to come with me. Be willing to jump off the cliff sometimes. That’s what we can—the circle of energy. The audience knows when we take a chance and when we try to push this passage to the limit.” And that makes classical music fun. Because if we just play like autopilot and trying to control everything as perfect as we can, sometimes we lose the point of what music is actually about.
Hugo Scott-Gall: If you could go back in time and give advice to your 10-year-old self, at 10 years, you knew what you wanted to do, what would you have done differently or what key kind of advice would you have wanted to hear? I’m asking for anyone who is listening, anyone who has children who is listening whose dream is to pursue a career in music. But they think maybe it’s risky, maybe it’s too difficult to get into and there are safer things to do for talented people.
Mei-Ann Chen: I think I will give this advice to the younger self. I am an example of living an impossible dream. Nobody thought I could come this far. My parents, my classmates, you name it. Probably my teachers, some of them have more faith in me than I do. But here is the advice I will give to myself and those of you who out there who are either in music or not in music, this might also apply to you.
1.) Be yourself. 2.) Don’t let anyone tell you that your dream is impossible. You have to be the first one to think it is possible. 3.) Create your own path. Perhaps easier to follow someone else’s path, but everyone is unique and it’s more rewarding to carve out what suits you the best. 4.) Be brave and find your true voice, even when the whole world seems to be against you. 5.) Believe in yourself and find angels who also believe in you. 6.) Persevere with passion. Keep it going because you absolutely love what you do and what you can share with the world.
Hugo Scott-Gall: And that’s a great list of things, and I’m pretty sure every 10 year old in the world would benefit from hearing them. Let me ask you a couple more questions.
One is, what other types of music do you really enjoy? So, if you have to have a month without classical music, what are you going to listen to? So, that’s the first question.
Mei-Ann Chen: I keep a very open mind. I listen to some of the stuff my sister listens to, just like when we were growing up. So, just listen to sort of the pops coming out of Asia. Well, that’s where I get my feel of what is trendy. Sometimes I don’t know what to look for. I look for Spotify suggestions of things that I don’t know but could be really interesting. So, I am open to all kinds of music. So, for example, like klezmer music, I wasn’t really exposed to it until I literally have to do a collaboration with Amuka Paza in Chicago as a matching bank.
They have klezmer music and we actually ended up collaborating with a klezmer band. And it’s so fun connecting with the Jewish history, but it’s also rooted in classical music, believe or not. Gustav Mahler used it in his symphonies. And gospel music is something that was new to me because of my work with Chicago Sinfonietta.
We work with the Apostolic Church of God Sanctuary Choir, 200 voices. That was new to me. I wasn’t exposed to gospel when I was in Taiwan, and so I’m constantly finding out things out there that I don’t know. And so, I think the model at Chicago Sinfonietta is to always dream of the impossible. So, I’m open to anything, nothing is impossible to be incorporated in a classical concert. And so, yeah.
Here is really a short and fun example. So, I just mentioned about gospel music. Actually, I’m the first conductor I think in the world that literally brought a gospel choir in between the Dvorak symphony called “From the New World,” the Dvorak Symphony No. 9. Because that’s what Dvorak heard when he was writing this masterpiece. And so, for me a lot of life experience plays into my work, and so, I’m always keeping an open mind.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Okay. So, final question, which I already asked you at the start. So, as I said, on the BBC, there is this thing called “Desert Island Discs,” and you’re cast away to a desert island and you’re only allowed to take eight pieces of music with you. I think eight’s too many to ask you, but what would be the pieces of music you would think about? So, these are clearly things that either mean a lot to you, clearly you have to love them. And there’s got to be an element of, you’re going to hear them a lot on the desert island, so you’ve got to be—they have to age well.
So, throw a few sort of suggestions at me, pieces of music that you might take with you.
Mei-Ann Chen: I would take the Project W that we recorded, and I’ll tell you why. Because I could listen to Florence Price anytime. I mean, there was just a very nostalgic voice. She uses African American spirituals, gospel, and to morph into something beautiful. Jessie Montgomery, who is now the composer and resident with Chicago Symphony. She writes very interesting, sort of a new form of music.
She grew up in New York, and literally it was just a melting pot of music that she grew up with. Reena Esmail, who has been composer, resident with the Seattle Symphony, combines her musical heritage from India, that’s where her parents are from. And she did a Fulbright. She combines Indian music played by Western instruments, and she’s the first one that I know how to cross that really interesting, two almost different genres of music and morph into the same.
Clarice Assad, the daughter of the Brazilian Assad brothers, creates this very sort of Southern American, Northern American—she’s always combining things, that musical heritage that’s important to her life. And I don’t think I ever get tired of hearing these women alongside with I will probably take Beethoven 5 and Tchaikovsky 5, just because those pieces were with me through the ups and downs when the rejection letters were more than the notes I ever conducted. Tchaikovsky 5, that horn solo comforted me in the lowest time of my life. And Beethoven 5 was the faith, the piece that opened so many opportunities when I almost gave up dreaming about being a conductor.
And so, those pieces will never be just notes for me. Those pieces meant life and death for me. And so, I treasure those. And I will say also Dvorak, for those of you who don’t know Dvorak, this is a composer that uses so many—he doesn’t actually quote specific melodies other than the spirituals he heard in America, and from the New World played by the English horn solo. But he was able to find his own country’s voice. This is Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic, and the Slavic kind of a wonderful language and he was able to make something beautiful out of something he’s familiar and yet created something new. So, I think, yeah, I will never get tired of listening to these composers.
Hugo Scott-Gall: So, even though you’re going to be alone on this hypothetical desert island, I don’t think you are going to be at all are you with your music?
I think you’re going to be just fine.
Mei-Ann Chen: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right, you’re right.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Very well. Mei-Ann, thank you very much for coming on the show. It’s been a delight to have you on. You’re the first musician we’ve had, and I doubt that we’ll have another one as good as you. So, thank you very much.
Mei-Ann Chen: Well, and thank you for what you do of tacking in interesting questions that connected to life in general. And I’m really honored to be the first musician, hopefully not the last you will have. So, good for you for championing for the arts. Thank you so much.
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