Joyful conductor impresses ISO, audience, reviewer 

Mei-Ann Chen

by Tom Aldridge

From the moment she appeared with host Michael Toulouse in the pre-concert Words on Music to her final bows at the end of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suite, Taiwanese native Mei-Ann Chen radiated joy, enthusiasm and masterful conducting. Her rehearsals with the ISO players surely conveyed similar emotions to them, allowing her to get the best from them in Friday's 12th classical, Romeo and Juliet themed program.

Chen was a last-minute substitute for scheduled guest podium artist Michael Francis. She came to the U. S. in 1989 and has made a name for herself as an American dynamic conducting force, now holding the positions of music director of the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta. Her program, featuring Delius, Bernstein and Prokofiev seemed to envelop the large Circle Theatre audience as though she were conducting them as well as those on the stage. Always having a score in front of her, she often turned to look at her patrons.

Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was a British composer the same age as Debussy but not quite in his league. His orchestral piece, The Walk to the Paradise Garden (1920), is an inserted entr'acte between scenes of his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet. Thick-textured with the lush harmonies of the late 19th century, the piece weaves its way through a seamlessly languid journey to nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Chen and her players got the best one could imagine from it.

Next came a part of Leonard Bernstein's tribute to the Shakespeare play, the Symphonic Dances from his musical, West Side Story. With its choppy rhythms and the players' snapping fingers, nothing else could have shown a greater contrast with the preceding Delius. Excepting for a couple of references to "Maria," the one American standard from that work, the rhythms tend to become overly repetitive. But Chen had those repeats done so precisely that one had to marvel at what she produced, having "first walked through the door" only two days earlier.

Of course, given Friday's theme and concluding with Prokofiev, you know it has to be a suite from his Romeo and Juliet ballet. What I didn't know at first was that the nine selections chosen were cobbled from each of the composer's three "official" suites, written after the final ballet version's 1946 world premiere. This is Prokofiev at his best -- his harmonic style melding with his characteristic orchestral colors and reaching an apogee in his creative output. As each number from this suite came to a full stop, the audience didn't know whether or not to applaud, and each time Chen turned to them and encouraged them, something conductors rarely do. Chen was this evening's program.