Praised for her dynamic and passionate conducting style, Taiwanese American conductor and NEC alumna Mei-Ann Chen ’95, ’98 MM is acclaimed for infusing orchestras with energy, enthusiasm and high-level music-making, galvanizing audiences and communities alike. Ms. Chen came to the United States to study violin in 1989 and became the first student in New England Conservatory’s history to receive master’s degrees simultaneously in both violin and conducting.
Highly regarded as a compelling communicator and an innovative leader both on and off the podium, and a sought-after guest conductor, she has appeared with distinguished orchestras throughout the Americas, Europe, Taiwan, The United Kingdom, and Scandinavia, and continues to expand her relationships with orchestras worldwide (over 110 orchestras to date).
"I would not have found my true voice as an artist today without NEC giving me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of becoming an orchestral conductor."
Join us in Jordan Hall on Wednesday, March 9th at 7:30pm ET as Mei-Ann Chen conducts the NEC Philharmonia, performing works by Auerbach, Barber, & Dvořák.
*This performance can be viewed in-person or via livestream.
Read more about the concert
Why did you choose NEC?
In a way, NEC chose me. NEC’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (YPO) toured to my native country, Taiwan, during the summer of 1989 and I was offered a scholarship to study at NEC at the Walnut Hill School as a junior in high school three months later.
What have you been up to since graduating from NEC?
Following graduation, I continued my doctoral studies at the University of Michigan. I then won my first Music Director position with Oregon’s Portland Youth Philharmonic (the oldest youth orchestra in the country). I loved impacting the younger generation and thought I had won a job for life (and closer to my family in Taiwan), but I had trouble obtaining my Green Card as the immigration rules changed after 9/11. My lawyer said, “You only have two choices – marrying an American or winning an international competition to prove that you have something valuable to contribute to this country!” I didn’t know which would be more difficult, so I went for the competition and got the biggest surprise when I became the first woman in their 40-year history to win the MALKO Competition hosted by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra! I then had to decide whether to stay comfortable in my job with the Youth Orchestra or to walk through the scary door of “professional career for women conductors,” with no guarantee whatsoever. Ultimately, I decided that I would regret it more if I didn't try, and later became Assistant Conductor of two orchestras I admired – first with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, followed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
I then became Music Director of the Memphis Symphony and Chicago Sinfonietta (CS). At CS, I am able to champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion through innovative programming that receives national attention. In 2016, we became the first orchestra ever to be awarded the MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Institutions! My CS audition program caught the eye of Austria’s Styriarte Recreation Orchestra in Graz, and I was invited to debut in Austria in 2011.
Ten years later in 2021, after conducting over 110 orchestras globally and guest conducting 20+ orchestras each season, and also becoming the First Artistic Partner with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) in Houston, I am honored to be the first Asian woman appointed Chief Conductor at the renowned Styriarte, founded in 1985 for Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
I would not have found my true voice as an artist today without NEC giving me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of becoming an orchestral conductor.
What are some of your favorite memories from your time at NEC?
In mostly chronological order during my nine years at NEC (including two years of extension division, four years undergrad, and three years Double Masters):
- The NEC Youth Philharmonic Orchestra’s tour to Spain in which I got to conduct the 1st movement of Mahler Symphony No. 5 during the sound check in Madrid. It was my first time conducting a full orchestra!
- Lessons with Marylou Speaker Church, Frank Battisti, Eric Rosenblith, and Michèle Auclair; Oral Heritage of String Playing taught by Laurence Lesser, and Ives & Stravinsky taught by John Heiss!
- Chamber music coaching with Eugene Lehner, Patricia Zander, Colin Carr and my Honors Quartet with Haldan Martinson, Lisa Suslowicz, and Feng Hew
- Performing the Concertmaster solo in Beethoven’s ‘Missa solemnis’ and the Scholarship Quartet with Masuko Ushioda
How have your NEC experiences shaped your artistic approach?
I have so many “musical angels” from NEC that continue to bless me throughout my career. Marylou Speaker Churchill, whom I consider my American mother, not only taught me violin but also taught me English and many other aspects of life during the three and a half years I lived with her and Mark Churchill. Marylou taught me to overcome difficult passages with LOVE and that’s an important lesson I have applied to life as well!
Mr. B (Frank Battisti) is the most organized person I have ever known – who planned his rehearsal order down to the exact minutes for each work. From Mr. B, I learned there is never too much planning for any project and that championing for new music is critically important for the continuation of our art!
Eric Rosenblith showed me that music is beyond notes – it’s an expression and reflection of our souls, which are the essence of our musicianship!
Richard Hoenich, my conducting teacher in orchestral literature, taught me that conducting is “being the music, not beating the music!"
Share a story about one of your favorite faculty or studio instructor.
During my Double Masters programs (violin for my parents and conducting for myself), I would split my week in half – practicing the violin while balancing time to study scores and conducting. I thought I did a good job trying to keep up my violin playing by learning pieces quickly, but then Mr. Rosenblith would say to me: “Music is more than just notes – what are you trying to say?” Since then, I always try to ask myself what each passage means, whether as a violinist or a conductor.
Do you have any advice for young musicians?
- Be YOURSELF! Embrace your unique background, that’s what makes you one of a kind!
- Don’t let anyone tell you that your dream is impossible. I grew up knowing very well that my dream was considered impossible by most and it made me even more persistent to prove others wrong.
- Create your own path. It might be easier to follow someone else’s path, but everyone is unique and it is more rewarding to carve out what suits YOU the best.
- Be BRAVE and discover your true voice for your field, even when the whole world seems to be against you!
- Believe in yourself and find your “angels” who also believe in YOU. There were many “musical angels” who saw in me what others couldn’t as I pursued conducting. Their encouragement helped me through many rejections and prevented me from giving up my dream altogether.
- Persevere with passion! Keep going because you absolutely LOVE what you do and what you want to share with the world!
Share any other stories about what has inspired you at NEC and beyond.
What I treasure most to this day are the special friendships and the entire NEC community. Every time I work with a new orchestra, almost always a NEC alumni approaches me to share special memories of their NEC days and to see if we have any friends in common!
Often times small gestures can go a long way in a friend’s life without even realizing it. For example, Annie Bartlett, who is currently serving on NEC’s Board of Trustees, was my lovely stand partner in the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. The conductor of the YPO would often ask who would like to conduct the orchestra at the end of rehearsals. I was too shy to raise my hand even though I was sitting quite close to the podium (my chair being the Second Violin Principal). Coming from Asia, raising your hand in front of the class was a foreign concept to me. Even though I was dying to volunteer – since I wanted to be a conductor since the age of 10 – it was difficult for me. Annie noticed my struggle and informed the conductor, and I finally achieved my dream of conducting the orchestra in Madrid! I was convinced that conducting (the biggest instrument in the room!) was my calling and I have Annie to thank for her kindness!!
Before returning to conduct at NEC this year, I made my debut in Spain conducting the Basque National Orchestra – life has come full circle for me. After securing my first Music Directorship with a professional orchestra in 2010, I have tried to pay it forward by creating a unique conducting competition through Memphis Symphony and expanded Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion Freeman Fellowship to include conductors.
In the short span of a decade, I have helped to launch or further the professional careers of more than a dozen young conductors who are now scattered all over the country and in Europe. As much as I am deeply grateful for my unexpected career, I am even more thrilled to have made a difference in many young conductors' lives while they make a ripple effect in the industry, impacting the various communities they serve!
Learn more about Mei-Ann:
Major and Degree: Violin Performance (BM); Orchestral Conducting (MM) & Violin Performance (MM)
Class year: 1995, 1998
Current job: Music Director, Chicago Sinfonietta; Chief Conductor, Styriarte's Recreation Orchestra Graz in Austria; First Artistic Partner, ROCO (River Oaks Chamber Orchestra) in Houston
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