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Music review: Mei-Ann Chen makes her Pasadena Symphony debut

October 30, 2011 |  4:58 pm

Mei-Ann Chen
The Pasadena Symphony opened its season Saturday afternoon at Ambassador Auditorium with a drum roll, during which Mei-Ann Chen came running on stage. A ta-da for a buoyant conductor making her debut with the orchestra? Not quite.

The percussion was prelude to "The Star-Spangled Banner,” which Chen then conducted with such vigor that she was already out of breath for her brief welcoming remarks to the audience.

Clearly carb-loaded, she certainly wasn’t out of energy or exuberance, given her remarkable calorie-burning conducting all afternoon. In fact, her gung-ho performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony sent me straight to the thesaurus for more options to "enthusiasm." They include eagerness, fervor, passion, gusto, zeal, zest, keenness, excitement, fire. All will do.

Vitality, drive, vivacity, dash, vim, gusto, brio, dynamism, verve and spirit are other suitable synonyms. You get the point.

Chen, who is from Taiwan and who immigrated to the U.S. in 1989, has recently become music director of the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta. Reports are that she has stirred things up in both cities with her upbeat, live-wire podium manner. And she really does seem to be a great spirit, if perhaps somewhat undiscriminating and unrelenting in her enthusiasm.

She began Saturday’s program a four-minute “Saibei” Dance that has the character of a Chinese “Saber” Dance. Taken from a larger suite by An-Lun Huang, a prolific Chinese composer living in Canada, the dance got the afternoon ball rolling, if not much more.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto was the next effusive work on the program, and the soloist was the young Canadian violinist, James Ehnes, who seems to have a new CD out every few months. His latest, of Bartók violin and viola concertos, is notable for the silky smoothness of his playing.

Ehnes is as cool as Chen is hot. That’s not a bad combination. Too much voluptuous warmth in Korngold’s concerto — written in 1945 by a composer who was then at his height in Hollywood (in the second movement he recycles a theme from his Oscar-winning score to “Anthony Adverse”) — can be cloying. Ehnes withstood Chen’s orchestral onslaught with an unflappably gorgeous tone and secure technique.

The Tchaikovsky symphony was a rollercoaster ride. The Pasadena Symphony, now in its second season without a music director, sounded a bit thin. But Chen was not in any mood to let that stop her. This is symphony with which she won the Malko competition in Sweden in 2005, and it is her talisman.

She’s had other recent competition, of course, with Valerie Gergiev’s powerful, soulful Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra Tchaikovsky Fifth in Orange County and Gustavo Dudamel magnetic Fifth with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Chen was unlike either, though. She punched out rhythms as if they were by Stravinsky (a composer I’d like to hear her conduct). She showed little patience for Tchaikovsky’s melancholy, and none for his sentimentality. Upbeats were rushed toward downbeats in a highly directional reading. Listeners had little choice but to fasten their seatbelts and hang on.

Where this kind of conducting might lead to, I can’t possibly predict. But I had as good of a time Saturday as the small matinee audience seemed to have (the concert was repeated in the evening for a no doubt bigger turn out). Pasadena long ago shed its “little-old-lady” reputation. But if the Pasadena Symphony is looking to give the city an even more dynamic image, Chen (who may or may not be a candidate for its music director opening, no one is saying) would surely do that.


Mei-Ann Chen and Tchaikovsky, together again

Critic's Notebook: Jorge Mester says goodbye to Pasadena Symphony

Music review: a Pasadena Symphony restart

— Mark Swed

Photo: Mei-Ann Chen conducting the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium on Saturday afternoon. Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times.