"It changed my life and I would like to do my part to change other people's lives.”
This is what Mei-Ann Chen, the newly appointed music director for the Memphis Symphony, tells Culturemap as she finishes rehearsals for her Saturday night performance at the Texas Music Festival at the University of Houston's Moores Opera House. It might seem like a fairytale today, but Chen's journey to become the conductor she dreamed about when she was 10-years-old was long and arduous.
Born in Taiwan, Chen was raised in a house filled with the music that her parents loved. She grew up playing the violin and piano, but deep inside she had known she wanted to conduct ever since playing in her first orchestra at age 10.
“I saw the conducting as a form of communication, of connecting people together. If you think about it, the conductor doesn't make any sound, but when you make the gesture, you connect with so many musicians to make the biggest sound in the room,” Chen says.
Although her parents were amazing supporters in other ways, they urged Chen to find another passion.
“When I was 10, I wanted to be a conductor and my parents discouraged me for reasons that they felt this is not something any young girl could pursue," Chen says. "I took the matter into my own hands. I actually have been studying conducting on my own since (age) 10. I was sharp in orchestra rehearsal. I remembered my violin parts, so I could fix my eyes on the conductor.
"He always thought I was the best kid because I was the only one looking up not knowing I was prepped already.”
Auditioning in the cellar
With that dedication, Chen was also prepped for a day in 1989 when the American Youth Orchestra from New England Conservatory in Boston was touring Taiwan. It was a life changing moment as Chen says, “My accompanist took me backstage after the concert, she asked the conductor if I could play for him the next day. The only place quiet enough for me to play for him was close by in a basement.
"They offered me a scholarship on the spot. It was chance for me to become a professional musicians just like my parents dreamed of. ... I came to this country to become a concert violinist. But still deep down, I thought, I finally have a chance to become a conductor.”
Through scholarship, Mei-Ann made it to the United States young and by herself. With no undergraduate degrees offered in conducting, she beame the first student at the New England Conservatory to receive masters in violin and conducting, Chen went on to get her doctorate degree because there weren't any job offers yet.
“There I realized after 18 years of dreaming of being a conductor, I was thinking of giving up because the amount of rejection letters were more than the notes I have ever conducted," she says. "I am not kidding, it was just that difficult. I don't know if it was because I was young, a woman, Asian, or combination of all three.”
After the endless stream of rejections, Chen picked up the violin to play again. That's when things started to get interesting. She became the music director for the Portland Youth Philharmonic and then received an invitation to be the assistant director for the Oregon Symphony. After becoming the first woman to win the Malko International Conducting Competition in its 40-year history, she received many invites to conduct.
But after all those years of waiting, after all those years of dreaming of becoming a conductor, Chen had found something more important to do than conduct.
“I was at a crossroads. The symphony wanted me to continue with the youth orchestra, which many of them, I have seen grow from (ages) 8 to 13 and my oldest kids are almost up to college kids," Chen says. "They became my kids, they were no way for me to give them up. So I made a very unusual decision. I gave up my professional position with the Oregon Symphony, I stayed with the youth orchestra.
"People thought that I was crazy that I stayed with a youth orchestra instead of pursing a more professional opportunity. Because I told you my life story, and a youth orchestra changed my life and gave me the chance to fulfill my dreams, I feel working with young musicians is a way for me to give back. It changed my life and I would like to do my part to change other people's lives.”
Some would say it's karma or providence, but it seems that all of the wait and disappointment has led Chen to where she wants to be. She is one of the youngest conductors in the U.S at 36. And because of that 1989 closet concert, youth education, and music are all important matters to her and the entire classical music industry.
“Every orchestra in this economy has a (more) tremendous challenge then ever before,” Chen says.
Pushing the next generation to find the music
One of the reasons there have been financial challenges is that younger generations don't get to experience the repertoire of classical music like the older generations that came before them. “I wish that more people were exposed to this art form when they have a chance," Chen says.
She has been seeking out students from UH's Moores School of Music to give them advice. Chen understands now more than ever what orchestras look for. But in the end, she believes students have chosen art. As she says, “it is important for humanity,” so students should know why they are passionate to play professionally and not just play for financial gain and fame.
“Creativity and humanity is so essential to the health of society," Chen says. "So I think these young musicians are the future of our generations. If they really bring out art forms to a meaningful stage, not only will they thrive, they will make their communities a better place for everybody.”
If it's your first concert or your 30th, Chen just wants people to engage in the energy of the music.
“When people come into our performance, it is what is allowed to come from the composer's creation ... we should be able to touch young people in the hall," she says. "The music is really being made in the best way, it can touch anybody who hasn't grown up with that background. I am an optimist. I try to touch people's lives every time they come into the concert hall when I am performing. Whether they are the best behaving audience; I don't care about that. I just care about if they are a transformed person when they leave the hall.”
After the heart of our interview was over, I asked Chen what some of her favorites in classical music:
Favorite Composition: "Beethoven's Symphony, some things never get old."
Favorite Composer: "Tchaikovsky."
Favorite Era: "Romantic Era, because the music in this era was an expression of your life."
Favorite Instrument: "An Orchestra."
After this answer, Chen says she will play anything in front of me that makes noise. I ask her if she would play a vuvuzela, and Chen says sure. She then goes on to admit that when she played piano or violin, it wasn't loud enough.
“As I kid always wanted to hear a bigger sound.” So she grabbed a plastic pipe and blew into it to accompany her while playing the piano.
A future conductor at work.