Mei-Ann Chen conducted the ASO in two concerts, October 6 and 8. Ms. Chen has become something of the next great thing in conducting circles for several reasons: she is a woman in a male-dominated profession, she has turned around the fortunes of the Memphis Symphony, and she seems competent.
The following comprised the program:
Abels- Gobal Warming
Ravel- Piano Concerto in G Major, with Terrence Wilson as soloist
Franck- Symphony in D Minor
The Abels piece was commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony Guild and was premiered by the Phoenix Youth Symphony. The composer has some notion of how the music relates to global warming, as described in the ASO program, but it seems that he wrote the music and then came up with a title. The piece has an Irish melody and then one from the Middle East. These themes are swirled around and bounced from here to there. But, to me, it should have been the soundtrack to a TV travel documentary. It is uninspired music that seems better suited to the Verizon Amphitheater with its huge screen than to symphony hall. I can see why its premiere was with the youth symphony rather than the Phoenix symphony. It received a nice reception from the audience.
The Ravel Concerto seems almost a transitional piece from his early impressionistic compositions to a harder edged-jazz influenced piece. (Given Ravel’s penchant for rouge and satin robes, I am not sure how hard-edged he really could be, but I digress). In fact, Frenchman Ravel was a fan of jazz, and felt that Americans simply did not appreciate their home-grown music. Apparently he and George Gerswhin frequented jazz clubs in Harlem to take in the atmosphere and the music. It’s probably worthy of note here that even today the French are bigger fans of jazz that Americans. The soloist and orchestra were well-matched partners. Chen and Wilson seemed to follow each other carefully so the performance came together well. The second movement, which relies heavily on the pianist, seemed rather leaden to me. Wilson does not have a big tone, but surprisingly he doesn’t have a particularly light tone either.
The Franck piece is in the standard repertory, but is not heard all that often. The last Atlanta performance was in 1994. I like this piece and can remember hearing played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy. No doubt that it was a sumptuous performance. For me now, the work seems a bit bloated and it could tolerate being edited down by about 10 minutes. Chen was interesting. At times, I could not tell what piece she was conducting since her baton movements had little to do with the music being played. The ASO, being professionals, ignored her and went on, although the trumpets came perilously close to coming apart in the first movement. Also, the final chord of the first movement was nothing short of disastrous. No one was together. I fault Chen totally for this, since her final baton instruction was indecisive. The ASO perform wonderfully throughout. Special recognition should go to the trumpets, trombones, woodwinds, violins and basses. They sounded first rate especially in the finale.
My conclusion is that Chen is a work in progress.