The October 26 performance of the NEC Philharmonia at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall was remarkable both for the East Coast premier of a new work by Osvaldo Golijov and the return to Boston of conductor Mei-Ann Chen, who from the back, in her Nehru jacket-cum-frock coat, reminded several of us of a young Seiji Ozawa. Like that master, she plants her feet broadly and has an impressive vocabulary of gestures and visual inflections. Her arms often point skyward in an invocation and sweep slowly downward at movement ends, to prolong our rapture. Because she commands the absolute attention of her players, she can even use gestures with individual fingers on her left hand to great effect, and she can summon an improvisatory quality of playing. Her indications of which players should stand for curtain calls was unique — she can be on my charades team anytime.
Recently appointed music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, she returned to NEC nine years after becoming the first student in history to receive dual masters degrees in violin and conducting. Her warm expressions of thanks evoked strong emotions from many in the room — including Benjamin Zander, a long-time member of the NEC Faculty and conductor of NEC Youth Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the Boston Philharmonic.
We were on tour in 1989 in Taiwan. The NEC Youth Philharmonic Orchestra had just performed a concert in Kiaoshong, when an eager 15-year-old came up to me back-stage and pleaded through an interpreter “I have to play in this orchestra. I have to come to America.
NEC Prep Director Mark Churchill [Dean Emeritus, Preparatory and Continuing Education and Director, El Sistema USA] and I asked her to come and play for us the following morning at 9 a.m. since we were leaving town at mid-day. The only place we could find in the hotel that was free for the audition was the bar, still reeking of beer from the previous night. Mei-Ann played on a very poor violin, but I remember being profoundly impressed by her passion and intensity. We promised her that we would do everything possible to enable her to attend Walnut Hill on full-scholarship and the next September she arrived, with hardly a word of English, and started her eight year stint in Boston, first at Walnut Hill, studying with Marylou [Speaker Churchill] and playing in YPO as the leader of the Second Violins. Mei-Ann led with such extraordinary flair, conviction and passion that it was clear that she would one day be a musical force to reckon with. When she graduated from high-school she lived as a ‘daughter’ at the Churchill’s, attended NEC as an undergraduate violinist and subsequently was the first person to complete a double Master’s Degree in violin and conducting.
Now a fast rising star in the musical firmament, she stunned the audience with one of the most polished, musically intelligent and passionate performances that has been heard in Jordan Hall in recent years. She won the heart of every student in the orchestra by her almost super-human energy, her joyful music-making and her passionate conviction that great music is a sacred trust that calls for absolute dedication, integrity and love – the very values that she learned from her beloved American “mother” and teacher Marylou Speaker Churchill, to whose memory she dedicated her performance.
“Thank you for finding her!” I heard on all sides. She found us, I replied, by the unyielding conviction that she should follow her dream.
The concert opened with a very exciting yet very well calibrated performance of Dvorák’s Scherzo Capriccioso, which set the stage for what the composer Osvaldo Golijov identified as another overture: “two appetizers in a row,” he remarked to the Jordan Hall audience. He also thanked the orchestra for allowing him to change and refine his piece during the rehearsals. Golijov’s Siderus opened with a Wagnerian gravity in the low strings; it was a bit like the Tannhauser overture without the horns. Then a Franck-esque continuous development (via Piazzola) moved the thematic material among the sections of the orchestra while building to an inexorable climax two-thirds of the way into the work. The piece then slowly wound down to a pianissimo ending. Chen prolonged the moment by drawing her arms downward in very slow motion. The mood was magical.
Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Sheherazade occupied the entire second half of the program. And it was delightful to hear it reclaimed from Pops status. (Actually, Brian Bell informs me that it has been played numerous times by the BSO, including 50 by Koussevitzky, though in many minds it still is associated with Pops.) It’s almost a concerto for every soloist in the orchestra, and boy! did they shine. The concertmaster and violin soloist, Quan Yuan ’12, a student of Donald Weilerstein, was astonishing, and his solo bow elicited screams. Others remarkable were Elizabeth Erenberg, flute (a valued intern for this journal); Amanda Hardy, oboe; Siri Bloom, English horn; Luke Olaf Varland, bassoon; Derek Lewis, French horn. On this night every section of the orchestra acquitted itself admirably.
Received with thanks.