Mei-Ann Chen named music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta

August 04, 2010
By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mei-Ann Chen will take the reins as the Chicago Sinfonietta's music director in the fall of 2011.

The Chicago Sinfonietta has named Mei-Ann Chen as the orchestra’s new music director.

The Taiwan-born conductor will succeed Paul Freeman, the Sinfonietta’s founder, in the fall of 2011, to become only the second podium leader in the orchestra’s 23-year-history, and one of the few women to ever hold a music director post with an established Chicago orchestra.

“I’m thrilled and honored to be following Maestro Freeman, and taking on an amazing orchestra that practices what it preaches,” said the 37-year-old conductor in a phone interview Tuesday night. “The Sinfonietta will continue to be a national model for diversity, inclusion and innovative programming.”

“I fully support the selection of Mei-Ann Chen to succeed me as the music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta,” said Freeman in a statement released by the orchestra. “She is an amazing talent and a real presence on the podium. I couldn’t ask for a better person to continue our work.”

Chen was something of a surprise choice with most speculation focused on two other podium candidates, John McLaughlin Williams and Alondra de la Parra, both of whom made impressive debuts with the Sinfonietta earlier this year.

Yet Chen also showed herself a strong and dynamic figure in the Sinfonietta’s season opener last October, leading a dizzyingly eclectic program that ranged from Ravel’s Mother Goose to music of An-Luan Huang and an erhu version of the Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto.

‘“We’re very excited to have Mei-Ann as our new conductor,” said Sinfonietta executive director Jim Hirsch Tuesday night. “We had a lot of strong candidates, but watching her in rehearsal and working with the orchestra we knew she was the right one.”

Chen will not formally take the Sinfonietta reins until the fall of 2011, with the upcoming season amounting to an extended farewell fete for Paul Freeman, who will be named music director emeritus upon his retirement in May 2011.

Chen’s sole Sinfonietta appearance next season will take place in May when she will lead the final program, which will spotlight two American women composers, presenting Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Symphony No. 1. Chen was already booked for the concert before she was chosen as music director, yet, as she noted, “It will [now] be a baton-passing,” with Freeman and Chen sharing the podium in his last appearance before retirement.

Chen’s four-year contract runs through 2016 and calls for four weeks of concerts and four weeks of planning and development, but the engaging violinist-conductor emphasized that numbers are not the important thing. “The main thing is to spend quality time with the orchestra and the community,” she said.

She also begins a three-year tenure this fall as music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Chen said that rather than taking time away from the Sinfonietta, her Tennessee post will be complementary in being geographically friendly but also offering an opportunity for “artistic synergy.” She said that she and her colleagues in both cities are already looking at future cooperation between the two orchestras, exploring possible joint presentations and the co-commissioning of new works.

Asked if she had the authority to make roster changes, Chen didn’t rule anything out, but said she is “a team player and a team builder,” and will strive to upgrade the Sinfonietta’s musicianship without wholesale personnel moves. “I believe in second chances, so I think we will give some time to evaluate what we have and build what we can.”

Chen was the first woman to win the Malko International Conductors Competition in 2005, and recently concluded her assistant conductorship of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a post she held previously with the Atlanta Symphony. In the 2010-2011 season she will lead eighteen different orchestras, including debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (a January children’s concert), the BBC Scottish Symphony, the Edmonton Symphony, and the Netherlands Philharmonic.

A native of Taiwan, Chen has lived in the United States since 1989. She holds master’s degrees in both conducting and violin from the New England Conservatory, and a D.M.A. in conducting from the University of Michigan, where she was a student of Kenneth Kiesler. During her five-year tenure as music director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic, she led its sold-out debut in Carnegie Hall, received an ASCAP award for innovative programming, and the Sunburst Award from Young Audiences for her contribution to music education.

While she would not discuss specific repertoire details, Chen promised innovative programs with multimedia elements and said she wants to expand the Sinfonietta’s educational component. She also wants to continue the Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion, which finds opportunities for young minority musicians, expanding the programs to include young conductors as well.

“I had a lot of help from mentors when I was starting out,” said Chen, “and I want to give something back to younger musicians.”

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