Mei-Ann Chen makes an auspicious CSO debut

05.10.13
Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Classical Review

By Wynne Delacoma

Sometimes the warhorses actually do win the race.

Not that Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert led by guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen was a competition. But the performance marked the opening of the CSO’s expansive month-long spring festival “Rivers: Nature. Power. Culture.” Two of the pieces were directly inspired by rivers: a rarely played Mendelssohn overture, The Fair Melusina, depicting a river sprite from a Central European fairy tale, and The Mississippi River by Florence Price, composed in 1934.

Considering the program’s theme, the evening’s final work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s familiar Sheherazade, could have seemed like an also-ran. True, two of its four movements concern the sea, but the symphonic suite is best known as a study of orchestral color rather than a focused exploration of the world of water.

But like the Sultan’s wife who heads off her own death by telling her husband wondrous tales for 1,001 nights, Chen worked some enchantment of her own on the CSO Thursday night. Often performed as a mixture of overly perfumed lyricism and ersatz exoticism, Sheherazade became something much more powerful and intimate.  Setting a deliberate rather than rhapsodic pace throughout the work, drawing pristine yet expressive phrasing from the orchestra, Chen transformed the story.

Without losing any of her mysterious aura, Sheherazade became a cool-headed beauty, a worthy adversary to the mighty sultan. Passions ran high in the stories she told. But this self-possessed young woman was smart enough to keep a tight rein on her own passions, which made her all but irresistible.

We knew something unusual was afoot in the first few minutes. Rather than a boastful swagger, the virile brass melody that opens the work became an unhurried announcement of a vast, implacable power. There wasn’t a hint of breathiness or girlish hesitation in Sheherazade’s theme. Instead, concertmaster Robert Chen let her song unfurl with seductive calm. His violin solos sounded sweet and fresh as the melody twisted and soared into the stratosphere, but the result was never giddy or evanescent.

There was plenty of orchestral color as Sheherazade’s tales unfolded, from luminous solo flute to heartfelt solo cello. With her vigorous baton and swooping body language, Chen maintained impeccable balance among orchestral voices even in Rimsky-Korsakov’s most noisy passages. This was a sumptuous, sophisticated Sheherazade, one worthy of a sultan’s love.

Chen’s blending of orchestral forces was equally deft in Mendelssohn’s overture, which runs from sunny evocations of a dappled, free-flowing river to darker eruptions. The tunes aren’t particularly memorable, but this brief overture had enough weight and drama to hold our interest.

Price, a talented African-American composer who studied classical music as a child in the South and settled in Chicago in 1927, earned accolades for her music. Frederick Stock gave the world premiere of her First Symphony in 1933. The Mississippi River is a kind of tone poem, four continuous movements that portray the river from a quiet dawn to a passage through Native American territory to a final arrival in the vibrant home of jazz and spirituals.

The piece became repetitious and meandered in spots, but the CSO’s tight ensemble sound and Chen’s careful control of blended voices made the most of its often-vibrant images. The luminous tick-tock rhythms of a marimba added bright texture in Native American sections. In the last movement, solo instruments came and went like musicians heard on a nearby shore, a moody trumpet or glowing horn or ardent cello playing snatches of such spirituals as Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Go Down, Moses. Spiced with bits from popular songs of the 1900s, the musical layers came together in a jaunty mashup. But in the closing bars the river once again smoothed out into a gently flowing undercurrent and the call of a lonely harp.

The concert was an auspicious CSO subscription concert debut for Chen, who is music director of both the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. The audience cheered and whooped at the end of Sheherazade and the players seemed just as pleased when Chen called them out for solo and group bows. With luck, we’ll see her again on the CSO podium.