Audiences in Chicago hearing difference with 'orchestra builder' Mei-Ann Chen

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

It was late last September when Chicago apparently fell in love with Mei-Ann Chen.

Best known to Memphians as the music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Chen was taking on the additional duties of music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta and was about to conduct her first concerts there.

The Sinfonietta, which bills itself as the nation's most diverse orchestra, has been around for 25 years. Chen took over for the founder of the group, maestro Paul Freeman, who retired at the end of the 2010-11 season. From the time it was founded in 1987, the idea was to open opportunities to minority classical musicians, composers and soloists, and to attract the wider Chicago community to classical music.

Chen employed the same high energy and freshness in her inaugural concerts in Chicago as she did when she burst onto the Memphis scene the year before.

On a Saturday night in suburban Naperville, a packed house at North Central College's modern Wentz Concert Hall roared with approval as Chen led the orchestra, a marching band and some singers in a rousing rendition of "My Kind of Town."

She repeated the event to equal enthusiasm two nights later in another full house at Chicago's ornate and august Symphony Center. The diverse audiences at both venues applauded at every opportunity, and Chen fairly beamed.

Her Chicagoland debut was a popular and critical success -- the Chicago Sun-Times said she was dazzling and "helped the players to deliver performances on a higher level than they've been able to show in recent years." The Chicago Tribune described her as "a musician for whom 'dynamic' and 'electric' seem altogether too limiting."

Chen's debut was also invested with anticipation as the Sinfonietta was hoping her presence would inject some new life into the group at a time when classical orchestras nationwide are having a rough time financially and in attracting younger audiences.

In other words, the Sinfonietta wants some of the same mojo that the Memphis Symphony Orchestra has to buck the trend.

Chen said as much at a recent Memphis concert when she noted that while many orchestras around the country have downsized or gone out of business, the MSO has increased subscriptions, attendance and revenues.

It's not just good luck. Years of long-term planning, some smart decisions and the savvy to take advantage of opportunities are what have made it happen.

One of those opportunities is the chance for the MSO and the Chicago Sinfonietta to use the Chen connection to get ahead.

In forging ahead on new ground, the Sinfonietta found that partnering with the community was the way to stay relevant. That's of particular interest to the MSO, which realized several years ago that aggressively connecting to the community was about not only relevance, but also survival.

In 2003, when Ryan Fleur took over as president and CEO of the symphony, he and the MSO board of directors took a long-term view and started making structural changes that were in place even before the economic downturn of 2008 that continues to hammer arts groups everywhere.

The MSO, like most symphonies around the country, had relied on producing concerts and holding traditional fundraisers. Fleur and the board of directors saw the need to change the business model and to focus on engaging and partnering with the community. It meant continuing the big symphony hall performances, of course, but it was critical to go out to the people and not expect they would come flocking in.

So there have been traditional performances at LeMoyne-Owen College, Hutchison School and, less conventionally, the Union Mission. Opus One has been a great success. But, as Fleur says, "the other side of it is a deep, deep involvement in the community." He cites the work of MSO tympanist Frank Shaffer directing drum circles at Youth Villages, the considerable mentoring that musicians do with the Soulsville Charter School and the corporate workshop the MSO developed, called Leading from Every Chair.

Reaching out to the community was already in place when Chen came aboard in 2010, but with her high visibility, it's gone into high gear. Her musicianship and positive relations with the musicians of the orchestra were crucial elements in her hiring. But just as important was her avid commitment to connecting with the community. As it happened, these were the same qualities that got her hired in Chicago.

Chen finds the possibilities thrilling.

"Both organizations are community-supported and community-serving," she says. "The Sinfonietta has a specific agenda when it comes to diversity, inclusion and musical excellence, and that is wonderful for me to take back to Memphis in terms of lessons learned and how to work with the African-American community."

She acknowledges that there are still challenges -- the economy is still sluggish, and the national landscape is littered with symphonic groups that are struggling.

"We're continuing to learn how things work, but we are tapping into potential," Chen says. "Things don't just come out of the blue. In Memphis, when I speak in the community, it's relationship-building, and people connect with our organization whether they love classical music or not. They feel that passion of what you do and your passion connects within the community."

Chen, who recently extended her contract with the MSO through the 2015-16 season, says she's trying to take the best from each orchestra and give it to the other.

Her opening concerts with the Sinfonietta in September employed a surprise that she used in her first concert in Memphis the previous year. She brought in the Kennedy-King College marching band and the Anima Singers of greater Chicago to do that arrangement of "My Kind of Town." In her opening concert the year before in Memphis, Chen had the Whitehaven High School band marching in the aisles of the Cannon Performing Arts Center to kick off the event and send a message that she was making her mark not only on the orchestra but with the entire community.

Jim Hirsch, executive director of the Sinfonietta, says Chen's dual duties strengthen what she's doing in Chicago. "We've already found so many potential areas of collaboration between us, like developing some really cool repertoire and getting some thematic events that we think will not only play well in both of our cities but very possibly other places as well."

Chen noted that, "Both orchestras have gone through a period when there's not much buzz in terms of new things happening. So my job is to build them as much as I can. I do have a reputation as an orchestra builder, and you can already hear the difference in Memphis."

Chen guest conducts with some 20 other orchestras annually and carefully observes the trends and difficulties. "There are only two directions to go in the symphonic world," she says, "up, or down the drain. There is no middle ground, so we are forced to think creatively. I'm not interested in just survival; we have to thrive. The Sinfonietta was dwindling, and we hope what we're seeing in Memphis will happen in Chicago."

On the other hand, the Sinfonietta has institutional experience in reaching out to the community and offers a certain expertise that the MSO can use.

"It takes years to develop relationships and trust to really fully reach out and successfully integrate new communities and new audiences into arts organizations that have traditionally not been engaged with them," Hirsch says

You can get a quick win with a special bit of programming, he says, but a long-term formula is different. "It's about consistency and ownership, creating sustainable partnerships with individuals and institutions," he says. "And then realizing that this happens over not one year, sometimes not five, but 10, 15, even 20 years of work."

For the Sinfonietta, content has been a part of its appeal, Hirsch says. "One of the reasons we are relevant to minority populations is that at pretty much every concert, we play the work of a minority composer, and pretty much every concert we have a minority guest artist. People want to see themselves on stage and in the audience."

Hirsch says carrying out the connection is well within the MSO's reach with some time and work. "You've got the history and the population there, and now you've got a maestro who totally gets it. They've got to recruit some minorities for that board. Diversity has got to be represented top to bottom; otherwise, it just comes off as inauthentic. But they'll figure it out."

After nine years on the job, Fleur recently left to take an executive position with the Philadelphia Orchestra -- one of the country's "Big Five" orchestras. His work in reshaping the MSO organization was key to his move, and Philadelphia needs some solutions as it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year and is working to stabilize.

In Memphis, Fleur says, "Our vision is delivering the highest level of artistic excellence at our core that then branches out into delivering excellence into communities and schools throughout Memphis. We don't do outreach and engagement for the purpose of a story in the paper; we do it because that's who we are, and that's increasingly in our DNA."