Mangan: Chen can't be resisted, and who'd want to?

Mei-Ann Chen
Orange County Register

By Timothy Mangan

Catching sight of a woman conductor is no longer as shocking as it once was, but it is still a rare enough occurrence. As it happens, though, women conductors take over our two big local orchestras this week and next: Mei-Ann Chen at the Pacific Symphony and Susanna Mälkki at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In the past, at least, the question about women conductors was whether they could lead and inspire an orchestra in the way a man could. Chen has the extra challenge of being a Chinese conductor in a profession still dominated by Europeans. But never mind. The question you had to ask Thursday night at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall was how could anyone – orchestra or audience – possibly resist her?

Chen, who is music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta, was making her second visit to the Pacific Symphony. Once she stepped onto the podium, she was a force not to be denied, a dynamo. She exerted uncommon energy, but her ministrations were also precise and incisive. Watching her, you understood her enthusiasm for the music at hand, not the least because she wore a huge smile a great deal of the time. But close your eyes and listen and there was carefully calibrated and polished music-making, not just bluster.

I would have liked to hear a little more range in her program, however, pleasing though it was. It featured an easy listening first half of Chinese orchestral exotica, which included the famous "Butterfly Lovers'" Concerto, and, on the second half, the familiar strains of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. For all intents and purposes, a pops agenda.

She lit up the Beethoven, con gusto. Her interpretation was no radical departure from the norm, but was so completely distilled and deciphered that she had something to say about every bar. She made a point at the start by holding the fourth note for a shorter time than most (those first few measures are the source of endless debate among conductors) and it set her propulsive tone.

The rhythms remained rugged throughout, her phrases chiseled. Still, she also uncovered neglected inner parts, enforced telling dynamic contrasts and even took the trouble to shape small details, like the pizzicatos in the third movement. Her motions could be extravagant – she almost danced the score – but they never seemed superfluous. She embodied the ebb and flow of this drama, the oratorical hammering of its big moments and the serenity and mystery of its whisperings.

The Pacific Symphony dug in as requested, catching her fire. The strings played like linebackers and angels. The woodwinds shone brightly and warmly. Enthusiasm never lagged.

The "Butterfly Lovers'" Concerto, written in 1959 by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, then students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, is probably the most well known Chinese work for a Western-style orchestra. Originally for solo violin and orchestra, it was heard here in a later version that replaces the violin with the erhu (a traditional bowed Chinese instrument with two strings that the violin had been imitating).

The concerto retells the story of the Chinese Romeo and Juliet (with a nod to "Yentl" thrown in); after much travail, the dead lovers metamorphose into butterflies. It's a sentimental and cinematic score, almost treacly at times (those harp glissandi!), thoroughly Western, and harmless, we suppose. At 28 minutes, there are several too many big endings. Nevertheless, George Gao played the solo with gooey lyricism, palpitating vibrato, gritty accents and theatrical flair. Chen and the orchestra supported earnestly and vibrantly. The audience loved it.

Gao's encore, with the orchestra, was "Galloping Horses," complete with musical imitations of racing hooves and neighs, a dessert on top of dessert. The concert opened with An-Lun Huang's brief and engagingly flashy "Saibei Dance," basically a Dvorák Slavonic Dance from Asia, but proficiently accomplished. Chen and the orchestra whipped it up jubilantly, no question about it.