Mei-Ann Chen is Music Director of the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta. Earlier this year she guest-conducted with the San Diego Symphony, and on May 9 she made her subscription debut with the Chicago Symphony. This is four orchestras and their audiences to whom she has introduced the music of Florence Price.
A few weeks ago she was kind enough to take a few moments from her busy schedule and talk with me about how this all came about.
Liane Curtis: I just recently discovered what you are doing when I saw they were going to play the “Mississippi River” Suite in Chicago. So I want to ask you about her, about Florence Price.
MEI-ANN CHEN: I have to admit I didn’t know much of Florence Price’s music before Martha Gilmer of the Chicago Symphony approached me with her Mississippi River. Martha has been the Vice President for Artistic Planning and Audience Development with the Chicago Symphony for a long time, and obviously Florence Price being very special to Chicago Symphony’s history, I think she has been waiting for the right conductor to come along. … It will kick off the Rivers Festival that was sugested by Yo-Yo Ma. Yo-Yo has an official role as a Creative Consultant with the Chicago Symphony now.
Martha has been following my career because she has family from Memphis…her family there has been sort of the ‘spy’ [laughs] for Martha and what’s happening with Memphis. And one thing led to another. So when Martha approached me and said “how would you like to do this piece?” I said “Oh my gosh, I totally don’t know this composer.” …
I just read the blog that you have—it’s wonderful that you are continuing to advocate for women composers. So, this year, as you know I have done “The Oak” [also by Florence Price] with Chicago Sinfonietta, and there’s one more piece that I’d like to mention because it’s a hidden jewel. We had to change one of the programs in Memphis … so I thought it would be a nice opportunity to find another piece by Florence Price for our audience to learn about her work in preparation for the Mississippi River that we’re doing to end our Masterworks season.
And so I found another piece by Florence Price, I don’t know if you know, it was originally written for piano, called “Dances in the Canebrakes.” William Grant Still orchestrated it for her, even though she knew how to write for orchestra, but I don’t know, maybe they were such good friends that William Grant Still thought this piece really deserved an orchestral treatment. It’s so delightful! But I can tell you when we got the parts from the publisher our librarian was a little bit horrified … It just looked like it hasn’t really been performed with an orchestra. So we actually got permission from the publisher to create a set [of parts] that our musicians can use. That way the publisher could continue to use this very well-made set for other orchestras.
So I’m going to do that again with Chicago Sinfonietta coming up in June for our Annual Ball, which is the largest fundraising event for the Sinfonietta … a lot of African-American community leaders will be attending. And in the same concert we will also be previewing our next season in which we will be doing the last two movements of Florence Price’s Symphony in E, which is Symphony No. 1; it was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933.
LC: Great! That’s good to know! So you’re doing “Dances in the Canebrakes” in Memphis?
CHEN: We just did it in January. And I will be doing it also with the Chicago Sinfonietta coming up in June. And they’re such delightful pieces, and really orchestrated well, but nobody knows! We’re also trying to spread the word to other orchestras. It might be wonderful for people to consider programming it.
LC: I know you did some Florence Price in San Diego because I sold a lot of CDs there [The Women’s Philharmonic CDs that we sell on our website].
CHEN: Oh, wonderful! Yes, I did Mississippi River in San Diego in February this year. I’m scared to do anything for the first time in front of the Chicago Symphony. And so it was actually a wonderful thing that San Diego had this response when I pitched it, they said “Sure, why don’t we do it here!” And I have to tell you the librarian there, Courtney [Cohen] was so wonderful because she compiled a 10-page errata list for the piece. You might be able to help us to solve this mystery, because it’s been recorded by The Women’s Philharmonic, so there must be a good set somewhere where all the wrong notes were caught…because the recording has the correct pitches compared to the many misprints in the parts she received for the San Diego program. Courtney said she couldn’t find that set used by the recording used for the recording, so she actually had to start from a brand new set. But the wonderful thing is this 10-page errata list compiled by Courtney will go on to the Chicago Symphony for my next performances in May and to Memphis as well; it will save a lot of rehearsal time for both—and future—orchestras.
LC: The thing about The Women’s Philharmonic, when they shut down in 2004, there’s been a dispersal of their collection and their knowledge.
CHEN: I see. Hopefully now the piece can become mainstream and at least we have done a lot of the footwork, the hard work for it, that will make it easier for other orchestras to do it now.
LC: Just on another subject, I know that you’re traveling so much and you go back and forth between Chicago and Memphis?
CHEN: Right. Because I’m Music Director to both Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta, (the latter being the most diverse orchestra in the country, founded to promote minority musicians of all kinds). The Chicago Sinfonietta is unique with its mission. Soloists, conductor, musicians…and it was very specific when Maestro [Paul] Freeman founded it, to promote African-American musicians and Latino musicians, so my appointment as Maestro Freeman’s successor surprised a lot of people. However, being in such a diverse world, it’s a goal for us to embrace more of a global diversity. But I think Maestro Freeman has also been promoting women composers and so it’s neat that even though Florence Price was probably not a composer whose music he had come in contact with, it fits nicely in terms of in my Chicago Symphony debut that I’m able to champion for an African-American woman composer.
LC: Great. Wonderful. So are both cities home for you now?
CHEN: Yes, Memphis is larger in budget size and so the longer season requires more of my residency. I spend 18 weeks in Memphis, and 12 of the 18 are conducting weeks. Now, in Chicago I spend eight to ten weeks a year and I consider myself also a Chicagoan. Our Sinfonietta season is a lot smaller in size. I conduct four concerts with the Chicago Sinfonietta, but there are other projects. For example we have a program called Project Inclusion, which is about to really gain national recognition from major foundations. It’s probably the only program that creates opportunity not only in small ensembles but also in side-by-side opportunity for music students who haven’t yet garnered enough experience to land a professional position in either an orchestra or a teaching position.
And so it’s really a small orchestra, but with mighty impact in the industry. For example, the Grant Park Festival Orchestra, which is quite well known, serves the Chicago Millennium Park with free concerts in the summer. We are going to begin a partnership as part of our Project Inclusion; participants will be playing side-by-side with their professional musicians this upcoming summer season. And so we are hoping to use my professional network, and our wonderful Executive Director Jim Hirsch’s professional network, to pitch a similar concept to other professional orchestras to encourage more presence of minority musicians among the symphonic world in our country, and to also encourage those …who don’t really grow up with classical music—it’s so important that they get exposed to it as much as possible.
LC: That’s fantastic!
CHEN: And I hope you will include “Dances in the Canebrakes” on your blog because they’re really delightful pieces. There’s a recording of the piano version but there is no commercial recording yet available of the orchestra version. My first commercial disc is coming out very soon, featuring the Harlem Quartet [and the Chicago Sinfonietta], with one world premiere and pieces that are out of print. I already told Jim Hirsch my hope for the next recording project: to include Florence Price, at least the “Dances in the Canebrakes” for sure.
LC: Oh great, fantastic. Excellent! I’ll look forward to that and thank you so much again.
CHEN: Thank you for all you’re doing to advocate for women composers!
[And thanks to Susan Brown for her help in transcribing this interview.]