MA 30 The Influencers: Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Sinfonietta and Memphis Symphony Orchestra
Mei-Ann Chen never misses an opportunity to try something new. During one Chicago Sinfonietta performance, for example, a Chicago-based punk marching band, Mucca Pazza, emerged from below stage wearing mismatched uniforms for Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. As a toy cannon shot confetti, younger listeners tried to grab handfuls. According to Chen, imaginative touches like these draw otherwise reluctant people to try classical music.
Since 2011 Chen has led the Sinfonietta, an ensemble that prides itself on inclusiveness and innovation in classical music. Under Chen’s guidance, last year the orchestra’s “Project Inclusion Conducting Fellowship” saw its first graduates secure assistant-conducting posts at the Minnesota Orchestra and San Diego Symphony. The more traditional (given its location) Memphis Symphony, where Chen is in her fifth season as music director, became a positive force for diversity and inclusion at a recent concert honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Chen invited the city’s Central High School Choir of predominantly African-American students to sing spirituals between movements of Dvorák’s spiritual-infused New World Symphony.
Chen says she hasn’t felt constrained by both of her orchestras’ limited resources. “We’re the mightiest boutique orchestras in the country,” she says proudly. Given that ticket sales at the Sinfonietta have been up as much as 50 percent the past few seasons, and up 30 percent during her tenure at the Memphis Symphony, Chen isn’t boasting when she says, “We generate a circle of energy, and our audiences respond.”
In addition to Memphis and the Sinfonietta, Chen was recently named artistic director and conductor for the 2016 National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival. Chen grew up in Taiwan playing the violin but knew from age 10, she says, that she wanted to conduct: “It was an impossible dream.”
Not any more.