Conductor Mei-Ann Chen Talks Music, Pasadena Symphony


When Taiwanese-born conductor Mei-Ann Chen last appeared on the Ambassador Auditorium’s stage, she left an indelible impression in Pasadena. Delivering a rousing, square-jawed Tchaikovsky 5th that left audiences cheering and people speculating that the Pasadena Symphony’s search for a permanent music director – currently its season operates under a rotating roster of guest conductors under the artistic direction of James de Priest – may finally be over.

There’s a reason that local music lovers are still hoping Chen may add the Pasadena Symphony to her growing list of orchestras she is associated with. Under age 40, Chen has already been earning acclaim and respect across the United States. Her work as music director of the Memphis Symphony and Chicago Sinfonietta has created a solid base from which her skills can grow. Already she has been gaining attention internationally and from top orchestras, having recently conducted the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and being called upon to lead the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival.

“Those are definitely highlights of my career,” she said.

On Saturday, Oct. 6, Chen returns to Pasadena to conduct a program of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich.

“I think they make a very interesting pair: Beethoven and Shostakovich,” said Chen. “Especially between the ‘Egmont Overture’ by Beethoven and Shostakovich’s ‘Symphony No. 9.’ There’s almost a direct connection. The play ‘Egmont’ by Goethe is about a man who stands up alone to oppression. With Shostakovich’s music we find a similar theme running through it.”

While Beethoven’s overture was composed as incidental music for a play about a revolutionary, Shostakovich’s music was composed in the giddy days following the immediate end of World War II – and the sobering Cold War that followed.

“It’s such a cheerful work,” said Chen. “Almost like there is something wrong with the composer. It’s so unusual for a Shostakovich symphony to be so merry. But it has its dark side, too, like the trombones and the expressive bassoon recitative in the fourth movement. And even though it’s a brief work, it never feels short because it has so much variety in color. It was an interesting time when he composed it in 1945. He originally declared he was going to write a big 9th Symphony like Beethoven’s for choir and orchestra. Instead he wrote this work. It was a big surprise for people. It shows the composer capturing the brightness in this historic moment.”

Also on the program is Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with the young pianist George Li, whom Chen praised very highly.

“Really, he’s such a remarkable talent,” she said. “I’m so thrilled to be working with him because he’s really one of the great artists emerging from the young generation.”

When pressed further about her future with the Pasadena Symphony, Chen was careful to not flame further speculation.

“We had a great time then,” Chen said. “I simply love Pasadena. It has a very unique charm. The [Pasadena Symphony] is a very wonderful organization, to be honest. But I have to ensure that my ability to communicate with the orchestras and communities I’m already a part of balances with my guest conducting.”

But in a voice that seemed to tease further speculation, she added, “But I would love to retain some kind of relationship with this orchestra.”

The Pasadena Symphony will present two concerts on Saturday – a matinee at 2 p.m. and an evening concert at 8 p.m. Tickets are available by calling (626) 793-7172 or by going online to