Conductor Mei-Ann Chenhas traveled the world conducting orchestras, but for the past six years, the Taiwan native has served as the Music Director for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Now that her tenure is over, the award-winning conductor leaves the Bluff City to travel the world guest conducting at some of the most prestigious concert halls in Europe and Asia.
The past six years have been very dynamic for the symphony. The group has experienced unique partnerships, collaborations, financial difficulties, and closed the curtain on the final Sunset Symphony performance in 2015.
However, Chen reminisces on the unique partnerships the Symphony has made, such as Ballet Memphis, and the unusual collaborations with local musicians, like rapper Al Kapone. Chen notes that the diversity of Memphis’ musical culture and the bond it forms between musicians here is unique from many other cities and regions.
“What other orchestra collaborates with local music from across such a wide array of genres? We’re in Memphis; we’re a symphony orchestra, what is stopping us from collaborating with rappers and other true Memphis original musicians,” says Chen. “The diversity and community within the city is the soul of the music. Music is part of us and we’re part of Memphis. I’m proud that I could bring some of that into the symphony.”
The music of Memphis isn’t the only thing the 42-year-old conductor noticed when moving here in 2010., Chen says the people here have left a lasting impression on her.
“The city has some of the most genuine and generous people. This city is beautiful, it has soul, which is something I can’t emphasize enough. We need to be the advocate for our city and celebrate these friendships it’s builtd upon,” says Chen. “I don’t think I will ever find or meet the same kind of friends that I met here.”
After leaving Memphis, Chen will become the Artistic Director of the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra for their summer festival.
The community and culture of Memphis and the South is something Chen plans on taking with her as she enters the next chapter of her life. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra honored Chen with the title of Conductor Laureate, an honorary title for outstanding creative achievement, which Chen hints is not the end of her relationship with Memphis and the Symphony.
“I came here as an outsider, and I’m leaving as a Memphian. I’m forever grateful to this city for letting me be a part of the journey and giving me my first professional music director position. I will also forever be a Memphian with a mission to carry the gospel thatis Memphis. I’ve taken many incredible memories from Memphis. Meeting these incredible people who try to make a difference in their city. I have never seen anything like it,” says Chen. “This is really a place that I don’t want to leave, but hopefully I’ll return to the symphony one day and continue connecting music with the community. It’s not a goodbye, more of a ‘See ya later.’”
For her final performances as musicdirector of MSO, Chen will be conducting Mahler’s First at the Cannon Center on May 14 and at Germantown Performing Arts Center on May 15.
Symphony and Soul
Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s Mei Ann Chen delivers her final bow as Music Director
Story by Samuel Prager