Mei-Ann Chen: From Shy Violinist to Ground-breaking Conductor
Transcript: Mei-Ann Chen 20180321 Web Interview
Fred Child: How did you know that you wanted to be a conductor?
Mei-Ann Chen: You know I well I grew up as a shy violinist who had parents who loved music and never had the chance themselves to pursue music. So my parents bestowed their dreams onto my older sister and me. I ended up with violin my sister with the piano and you know actually I ended up doing both because my sister really wanted to draw in a close space. And when she's ready to share you know then she could share because performing arts you have to do it in time in front of people. And so when I show up in my first orchestra rehearsal at age 10 I saw this person on the podium helping to create the biggest sound only by using body language. I ran home. I was so excited. I told my parents, "Piano and violin the fun. But I wanted really to be a conductor to play the largest instrument in the room." They frowned, they look worried because in that generation you really--they really couldn't find any teacher for me. It wasn't something you go to school and get a degree and can become an orchestra conductor. So I didn't let them stop me. I was very stubborn. I would show up at my orchestra rehearsals with my parts completely memorized so I could watch the conductor learn by observation. I thought if I couldn't have a teacher, and the conductor look around the room I was the only kid looking up at him while everybody else is buried and their music, not knowing I was trying to steal his craft at age 10.
FC: So even at age 10 you would not take no for an answer. You knew what you wanted to do, what you wanted to be and you found some ways to make that happen when there were no obvious channels available.
MC: Yeah I for some reason I guess Richard Strauss was absolutely right when he said conductors are born not taught because I thought, I just had this incredible urge of wanting to express music through body language. And I thought I was a very odd child. Not until I was later in a conducting class or conducting program I realized I wasn't the only weirdo. And so I never occurred to me that you know pursuing conducting will be as hard as I would have experienced later in terms of opportunities. It's just something that I knew I had to do for for to make myself happy. That was my passion of wanting to use body language to pull all kinds of sounds together. So I was self-taught on trumpet. I took brass sequence, percussion sequence, when I was a doctoral student at university just I knew I was trying to equip myself as a conductor without knowing what are the chances of making it as a conductor out there.
FC: So when did that pivot from all these difficulties, all these obstacles not having a clear path to study, having to be self-taught to a large extent. When did that pivot into thinking this could actually work. I could actually be a conductor.
MC: Well I have so many angels in my musical journey and the first one I have to thank Benjamin Zander who still conducts in Boston. He took the Youth Orchestra affiliated with the New England Conservatory to tour in Taiwan when I was just a teenager and I went to the performance met him backstage and actually went to his hotel to play for him. The next morning because my older accompanist asked him the question of whether that's possible. I showed up with literally no English. I was very shy and really the language barrier was harder than you know even if I was able to speak English I wouldn't be able to communicate with him. However he heard me play in this closed bar in the basement at the hotel because it was the only place quiet enough for me to play for him. And he rarely saw Asian musicians. Many of us grew up with Tiger moms you know. Practice practice, discipline is number one. I wasn't practicing for my parents anymore. And so when he saw me perform out of my heart with a piano pianos appear around us. He offered me a scholarship to study violin in Boston and I tricked my parents into giving me a ticket to come to America. They thought I was coming here to become a concert violinist went deep down I knew, ha. Finally I had a chance to fulfill my dream as a conductor and so as an undergrad there's no undergrad degree for conducting in this country I believe. As an undergrad as a violin major at New England Conservatory. I would use Chinese Potlock to get my friends around to play. For example I will put Dvorak Serenade at the end of my violin recital. And so it was thanks to Mr. Zander to give to give me a chance to come to America.
MC: ...But I should tell you one year after I arrive in America we I was in this huge focused second violin principal on tour to Spain. And you know Mr. Zander has always been very creative. And a few minutes at the end of a rehearsal he will always ask who wants to conduct and I'm right there in front of him and I couldn't raise my hand because I was still very shy. So my wonderful sweet American stand partner went to Mr. Zender and said, "Mr. Zander I wanted to tell you that Mei-Ann really wants to raise her hand but she's too shy to do so." So at the last performance in Spain well we'll warming up for Mahler Fifth Symphony which we have been performing about nine times that during that tour as the first score I got myself a conductor score and I will take it out and study on the long buses because I didn't where my friends are asking me about what are you doing with a conductor score. And so the last sound check in Madrid, Mr Zander literally walked towards me and said Mei-Ann come up and conduct the first movement of Mahler 5. And that's my first time conducting the orchestra my dream becoming true. And many of my friends actually came to me afterwards and that Mei-Ann I think you're really good at this. And so you know that I always knew that's what I wanted to do. But it's nice to know that I actually have some talent at it.
FC: Mei-Ann, you've mentioned several times that you were quite shy when you were in your teens early 20s. Part of being a conductor is being able to convince a hundred talented strong minded musicians to play a piece the way you want to shape it. How did you overcome that shyness to develop the charisma it takes to be a conductor?
MC: Well you hit on the big challenge. I had to overcome Fred because I didn't realize being a conductor requires so many different skills. I mean it's also psychological you're working with so many individual creative artist. And so I think it's safe to summarize saying that conducting has really brought me out of my shell because I realize in order to conduct , let's say everybody celebrating Bernstein of Bernstein's overture to Candide I mean you can conduct that with you know we're very subdued emotions if you well you got to just bring yourself out there and really be the music cause I always said conducting is about being the music. And so I think conducting has really brought me out of my shell in terms of I realize that I'm not doing this for my own satisfaction only because actually getting all the sounds together and enabling all this incredible creative individuals to bring them together in that unified voice is something greater than what I could accomplish myself with. And so it really has shown me how to connect with others and the music helped me to do that in the first place but now being a music director of several orchestra and be a guest conductor over the world. It helps me to realize you know when I when I call what I guess conduct orchestra I call speed dating with orchestra. You have four rehearsals to get to know all the musicians and then put on a concert or two.
MC: ...And it's really about the music. It's really about connecting everybody in a way that we're so convinced what the composer is trying to say and then bring that circle of energy bring that to share with others that come to the concert hall to experience it live. And so it's conducting has brought me to places I never thought possible, to meet people I never thought possible growing up in Taiwan. And so I really said my musical journey is my life journey as well.
FC: Mei-Ann you're describing so many obstacles that were in your path toward becoming a conductor including resistance from your parents when you first expressed this idea and having to trick them about why you were going to America convince them that you were going to be a violin soloist when you really had conducting in mind. So what was it like the first time your parents saw you conducting a professional ensemble?
MC: You know I have to say that it took the longest time in some way for me to turn them around and they were they were being good parents because they know conducting is a very unusual career path for someone like me coming from Taiwan. Being a woman with all that added up together and they were just being good parents. But here is a beautiful story. So I started doing competitions when I was the music director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic. The oldest youth orchestra in a country because I needed to get up taking my green card.
MC: ...So my lawyer said to me this is absolutely true story right after 9/11. I started my tenure in Portland Oregon but my lawyer said to me because of 9/11 that you know they have changed rules about how they grant green cards and being a performing artist lest especially people reviewing my case unless they are classical music lovers they may have a difficult time telling the difference between conductors, and train conductor for orchestra. Why do we need to get people to wave their arms to stay in this country. So my lawyer said to me I only have two choices. One I marry an American which will get the green card faster and easier; two go when the international competition. Not too many Americans before me that I can prove that has something to offer. So when I start doing competition that's was that led to the biggest surprise of my life. One of the biggest surprise which is winning the Malko competition hosted by the Danish National Symphony that has been happening for 40 years. At that point 2005 I was just hoping to get one of the six prices and not too many Americans before me. I have a chance to stay in America to fulfill my musical dream. And sure enough I had no European training and not gone to Europe for any workshop completely American trained not knowing much about Scandinavian culture.
MC: ...And here I was one of 242 applicants from 40 countries and becoming the first woman to ever win the competition. And actually I didn't tell my parents all about the competition. My father has high blood pressure. I didn't want his blood pressure to roller coast you know throughout the competition and actually it was one of my student's parents in the Portland Youth Philharmonic that has Taiwanese connection that led to my parents finding out about me winning this competition in Denmark and opening doors. I never thought possible afterwards. And when I actually got invited to make debut with the Taiwan National Symphony No. Also as Taiwan philharmonic outside Taiwan. This was in 2007 two years after I won the Malko competition. That's first time they saw me conduct a professional ensemble ever. And I think that's when realize maybe they don't have to worry so much about me making it.
FC: After all that time seeing that happen. Yes Mei-Ann and you mentioned the among the all these different obstacles that were in your path to being a conductor the fact that you're a woman. Did you have any musical female role models that you looked up to when you were a child a young adult?
MC: Well I have to say that the number one female mentor for me that inspired me to come this far has to be Marin Alsop music director of the Baltimore Symphony because Marin has really shown all of us that it's possible to pursue your dream even as a woman conductor a minority in the feel she has never shown me anything that's not possible. And so she also created a fellowship Taky fellowship specifically for women conductors to share podiums with her on a subscription programs to really expose us to many more professional orchestras out there. And so I will say without Marin's help I wouldn't be where I am today. There was a female Chinese conductor that my even my parents' generation are very aware of.
MC: She grew up in Sydney where she was born in China but really got her musical training and set me later develop heart connecting career in Taiwan and founded the Taiwan Taipei Philharmonic and she was viewed as someone that was really unique in the conducting world in Asia because there were so few of women conductors in that generation. She was very active in the 60s, 70s, even in Europe and in Asia. So everybody said well do you want to become the next school Major. You know but her training really was a base in Taiwan. And that's another challenge. My parents was trying to tell me is that you know it's almost a miss how she became who she was in that generation there wasn't a path to follow. And so it will be very tricky. And I knew my path would be coming to America which allow me many opportunities to develop as a musician.
FC: Mei-Ann, did anyone ever discourage you from being a conductor simply because you were a woman.
MC: Well many of my relatives were very surprised. What I wanted to do when they realize I was very shy I wasn't just the woman thing like you mentioned earlier compactors someone of a leadership role. Someone who is a spokesperson for the orchestra and they just never thought that I fit in that that profile period. And in terms of woman again coming to America never occurred to me that it's not possible to do anything it might be hard.
MC: ...As a young conductors period in terms of the catch 22 if you don't have enough experience a lot of your resume or you know the VHS that we used to send it simply were not being viewed by nowadays I think with so many more schools including conducting programs and the Montour by people such as Marin Alsop you know of the Baltimore Baltimore Symphony. Peabody right next to to the the professional orchestra there. There are so many more opportunities allowing women to come forth. So I am so happy to see what has happened in terms of the next generation of women conductors. There are so many more of us actually already happening. I will say when I had the Portland job a decade ago because many of us were coming through the school program but most of us happened to have found opportunities in academia versus professionals. But even now with Dallas Symphony hosting the program for women conductors with the opera program my own Chicago Symphony Attah encouraging Project Inclusion Program to include conductors. During my tenure we are seeing more and more women and young conductors being courageous to take up this as a career path.
FC: You're now a music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta and there's been a lot of attention this winter to the upcoming season the 18-19 season of American Orchestras and the diversity or in many cases lack of diversity of those programs schedules you in the Chicago Sinfonietta maybe the most diverse list of composers and performers for the coming season. Is that something you take into account when programming the Sinfonietta/?
MC: The history of when our founder Mr. Paul Freeman handed his baton to me as he was retiring and I was coming in as the new music director who happened to be in a program with all women composers and so we celebrate our 30th anniversary season having a presence at the Symphony Center which is the home of the Chicago Symphony. We thought one of the ways to honor our legacy with Maestro Freeman was to program another program with all women composers and I have to say that you know project w that we call it. This year has put us out in the national radar in terms of being number two in the program. Number two orchestra in the country who has championed for women composers only after Los Angeles Philharmonic which is pretty astounding and impressive for a small orchestra like the Chicago Symphony yeta. However I have to say that the symphony Attah has always had a reputation of championing for diverse composers throughout our history. And so programming more women composers as just another way of us embracing what we often neke like to call it a minority in our industry. You know less than 2 percent of the entire repertoire being programmed by professional orchestras in a country are by women composers. So we're blowing that 2 percent totally out of proportion. In fact this year I think we have 43 percent of our programming by women composers but not only women composers you're absolutely right composers of African-American heritage Indian heritage as we will tackle that in our next season of many of mixed culture. Even composers of diverse background compose or interesting pieces such as what we have done Laura Cartman's Call Your Mama, 104 four minute long multimedia, 12 moods for jazz really inspired by Langston Hughes' epic poem. I mean these are programming's who were so proud of championing, continue to champion at the Chicago Symphony as of being one of the most innovative orchestras in the country in terms of embracing diversity inclusion embracing a quality that's in our industry. So it's a fun fun mission for us to champion. It's one of a kind.
MC: ...And it's also hard to top yourself in terms of how do we get the next programming to be US innovative. You know we have a program innovative programs of Mucca Pazza the punk marching band that has a huge following in Chicago. The last time we collaborate with them several years ago is when markka author Foundation said night of their folks to review our concert without us knowing that they were there leading to you know six months later the Chicago Symphony are being awarded the $625,000, what they called a genius grant for organizations and so it's a fun place to be being in Chicago being the leading organization for diversity inclusion and an innovative programming.
FC: You've taken such an active role in developing the next generation of talent as well. And I wonder if any of that is informed by all the obstacles you had to overcome and having to do so much by yourself when you were coming up as a young aspiring conductor.
MC: Fred I've only gotten to know you in a short time and you have basically summarized my life dream right there in that one sentence. I grew up in Taiwan and one of my dreams is to become someone who has garnered enough experience that that I can make it easier for the next generations. And you know I view it. It's great to conduct the best orchestras in the world but compared to if I were able to help other young conductors to find their own voices, to find their artistic visions with other communities they serve, that kind of impact so much more broader impact that I could bring to our industry. And so I realize that oftentimes when I talk about that sometimes music directors searchers will be confused. They will be like, do you mean you want to be a professor teaching somewhere. No that's not what I meant because in order to help others--and again Marin Alsop is ultimate you know aspiration in that sense---you have to go through what it takes. For example how to be an effective staff conductor with professional orchestras in a country that's very different from being effective music director of a professional orchestra in a country and very different from being a successful guest conductor going around. Not only in American orchestras but also orchestras over the world. And so every role comes with a little bit different kind of skill set. And my hope is to pass that on to the next generation of young conductors with Chicago Sinfonietta's Project Inclusion Program that we are able to launch six out of eight fellows right out of graduation from our program into a professional position in the country which is unheard of in terms of conducting program and its success rate. And so that's, that's our hope is that we are able and you know... Marin, what Marin has done for me, it's my hope that I can do similar giving back to other young conductors who have gone through what I've been through and to be able to find their own voices somewhere out there
FC: In a couple of weeks we're going to broadcast your performance of a piece by An-Lun Huang, the Saibei Dance. Can you tell me about this piece.
MC: Yes that's my first piece with Chicago Sinfonietta and I when I was invited as a guest conductor in an East Meets West program. And we originally had a different opener on the program and maestro Paul Freeman asked me if I would like to pitch anything as the opener of that program. And when I sent him this this piece in score form because it wasn't a commercial recording available for the piece yet he absolutely loved it. And so it's the very first piece I ever conducted the Chicago Sinfonietta, without knowing that I was going to be considered a music director candidate later. And so this piece was written actually by Mr. Huang who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. He was an in exile, living with the farmers. Composing was was not allowed for artists doing that 10 year period of cultural revolution. But Mr. Huang found a way to secretly write. Still wanted to to allow himself to be creative and he captured a lot of the folk melodies that he learned from all these farmers in exile... Saibei means the northen area of the Great Wall. And this piece you would not hear any struggle and strife because it actually celebrates the annual harvest. So I find it fascinating to hear so much joy and celebration written in a time of such darkness during China's history. And so when I performed this piece, it's joy in multiple levels. It's the beginning of my wonderful tenure of Chicago Sinfonietta, to have to for diversity inclusion the innovative programming's but also the music itself is such a wonderful piece of music that a lot of orchestras in in America don't know. And An-Lun Huang now lives in Toronto has lived in Toronto for a long time. Probably have more of his works performing Canada than in America, but I totally championed this work. I have brought it to as far as Gratz, Austria and many other countries as I can to just showcase another wonderful piece of symphonic music that deserves to be played.
FC: Mei-Ann this is something I enjoy asking every conductor I talk with and everyone has a different answer. What is it that a conductor does?
MC: I think a conductor is the advocate, or the channel for the composer's creative voice because you know a piece of music could only be a blueprint on the page. But it's the conductor that that brings out that pulls together the the living sound of of the the blueprint that the composer creates for us. So I would say conductor is conducting... I go back to my sentence, conducting is about being the music. The music being created as the composer perceived it. And so we are the channel to allow that music to come from us to the musicians and the musicians actually creating the sounds that will be perceived by the audience and experienced by the audience. So the conductor I think when we're at our best is a conduit. And we, if we disappeared in a performance that's maybe when we did our job the best.
FC: Like like the home plate umpire at a baseball game. Does a great job when you don't notice.
MC: That's right. That's right. That's right
FC: Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, Artistic Director of the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Music Festival. What a treat to speak with you. Thank you so much.
MC: Thank you so much for having me on the program. I love listening for a long long longest time. So I feel like I am so honored to be on this show. Thank you.