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Mei-Ann Chen Excels in Romantic Program

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 11, 2011 - 10:17:03 PM in reviews_2011

Mei-Ann Chen
Terrence Wilson

Conductor Mei-Ann Chen seems to attract “firsts.”

Chen was the first student in the history of the New England Conservatory to earn simultaneous master’s degrees in conducting and violin, and the first woman to win the prestigious Malko Conducting Competition.

Friday morning at Music Hall, she stepped in on a week’s notice to conduct the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in place of creative director Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who is taking medical leave.   It was her CSO debut.  She may not have brought any other “firsts” with her (yet), but she made a terrific impression.   It was an all-romantic program, with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring guest artist Terrence Wilson, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sheherazade.”

A native of Taiwan, Chen, 38, is music director of the Memphis Symphony and Chicago Sinfonietta.   She conducted “Sheherazade” completely from memory.  Under her baton, the four-movement suite (inspired by “The Arabian Nights”) unfolded in myriad colors, with the spotlight clearly on the CSO.

“Sheherazade” is a showcase for orchestra and Chen attended to that with great care.  The many instrumental solos were delineated with character and definition.  Concertmaster Timothy Lees, representing Sheherazade, crafted images of great beauty, from the very beginning (“The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”) where, with harpist Gillian Benet Sella, he introduced the fabled storyteller sensuously but mysteriously, as if behind a veil, to the full-circle ending in movement four (“The Festival at Bagdad. The Sea. The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock”).  Here Lees spun to a long-held high E before a warm, glowing finish begun on the violin’s lowest string.

Other standouts included cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn, bassoonist William Winstead, oboist Dwight Parry and clarinetist Jonathan Gunn, all CSO principal players.  Chen knew how to deploy them all and how to pace the music to optimal effect.  An example of the latter was the breathtaking, rhythmic buildup in movement four that suddenly resolves into a sustained chord and the huge crash of tam-tam near the end.

Wilson, a perennial favorite with the CSO, treated his audience to a lush reading of Rachmaninoff’s popular Concerto.  He knows Music Hall and how to perform there and his work was a true collaboration with the orchestra.  All the “big” moments were there, with no lesser regard for smaller ones, and ensemble between soloist and orchestra was precise.  He, Chen and the CSO saved the “really big” moment, the Concerto’s famous, soaring melody, for the end of the finale, which brought the crowd to its feet.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 12) and 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 13).  Tickets begin at $10.  Call (513) 381-3300.