Taiwanese-American conductor Mei-Ann Chen led a lively conversation with colleagues at William Blair during the company’s Asian/Pacific Heritage Month celebration about embracing cultural differences and mission of the Chicago Sinfonietta, the most diverse orchestra in the country, which she directs.
Speaking in Chicago on May 25, Chen shared stories of her struggle to become a conductor in a field with few women or musicians of color. She is especially proud of Chicago Sinfonietta’s work promoting diversity and inclusion through symphonic music and innovative programming for 35 years.
From tap dancing to Stravinsky’s ballet Fire Birdin collaboration with the Mucca Pazza fanfare for a joint performance of the 1812 Opening at his annual concert in tribute to Dr. King and the Project W initiative highlighting various female composers, the award-winning Sinfonietta sets the example.
“Anything you can think of, we probably did,” Chen told the rally. “The orchestra is a very interesting enterprise. I’m so proud to really champion diversity through the work we do as an orchestra.
Tribute to the inhabitants of Asia and the Pacific
William Blair’s business resource groups ONE Alliance, which celebrates all cultures and ethnicities, and Women’s Alliance, whose mission is to empower women in the workplace, invited Chen to speak in honor of generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and culture. , and achievements.
Born in Taiwan, Chen came to the United States to study the violin as a teenager in 1989 but always dreamed of becoming a conductor. She earned a double degree in music from the New England Conservatory and went to the University of Michigan for her doctorate in orchestral conducting. But it took a few years and many rejection letters before she landed her first professional job as music director of Oregon’s Portland Youth Philharmonic.
In 2005, Chen became the first and only woman to win the international Malko competition for young conductors held in Denmark. This helped launch her formidable career as a sought-after guest conductor around the world, putting on 20-25 performances a year alongside her role at the Chicago Sinfonietta.
angels of life
Chen acknowledges that success is not easy. It takes an incredible amount of determination, passion, and most importantly, a strong support system to get you through the tough times. It’s especially difficult for women and musicians of color, as orchestras are among the least racially diverse institutions in the country.
As a doctoral student applying for a position as a professional musician, Chen received so many rejection letters that she almost gave up on her goal of becoming a conductor. But his family stuck together.
“My angels in my life, my sister and my brother-in-law, said you were so close to pursuing your dream, hang in there,” Chen said.
Looking back on those years, she is a strong supporter of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Inclusion Project for Young Conductors, a scholarship that promotes the development of diverse and emerging conductors. Conducting Fellows work closely with Chen for a year or two and have the opportunity to conduct ensembles with Chicago classical music organizations.
The scholarship program was originally launched in 2008 for various musicians by Sinfonietta’s founding musical director, Paul Freeman, to bridge the gap between finishing school and starting a career.
“A lot of people give up in that gap,” Chen said, noting that since the scholarship was expanded for conductors nine years ago, it has helped launch the careers of nearly two dozen conductors. orchestra of color in the world.
Success means being brave, sometimes taking risks, she told colleagues at William Blair, but those risks can be opportunities that pay off in the long run.
Chen recalled an incredible show she conceived and directed in 2014 that included a joint concert by the classical orchestra Chicago Sinfonietta and the punk band Mucca Pazza. The finale was a battle of interpreting Tchaikovsky’s bands 1812 Openingchoreographed with cheerleaders wearing pom-poms, members of the Mucca Pazza band in mismatched costumes of varying colors, and confetti-throwing cannons in Chicago’s Symphony Hall.
This performance enabled the Chicago Sinfonietta to become the first orchestra to receive a $625,000 artist grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
As a conductor, whether at home in Chicago or visiting another city, she believes that the strength of an orchestra lies in giving the musicians enough space to be themselves, so that each member can bring their creativity to the orchestra team.
“I try to create a bridge,” Chen said, “to bring that bridge closer between the audience and the stage. We all need to be ready to say kumbaya, fly and take our audience with us. It seems to work.