Conductor Mei-Ann Chen has been a fixture of the music world for decades, leading orchestras around the globe. Named one of 2015's top 30 influencers by Musical America, Mei-Ann continues to inspire through her current work at the Chicago Sinfonietta and the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival. We chatted with Mei-Ann about her career at Walnut Hill and beyond.
What brought you to Walnut Hill originally, and what was your experience like as a music student here? Do you have a favorite memory or experience from those years?
The Youth Philharmonic Orchestra from the New England Conservatory went on an Asian tour when I was a sophomore in high school in Taiwan. The conductor, Benjamin Zander, heard me play the violin after I had attended his performance and offered to help me enroll at Walnut Hill School for the Arts. I tricked my parents into giving me a ticket to come to the United States to study the violin, which would finally give me the chance to pursue my dream of becoming an orchestra conductor in America. It was at Walnut Hill that I felt like a serious musician for the very first time in my life, being surrounded by so many talented classmates who were passionate about their art!
My favorite memory of Walnut Hill is probably that of playing great chamber music works with friends, rehearsing and taking breaks together around the beautiful campus, and developing friendships that are still very special to me many decades later!
Tell us about your current career and the steps you took in your journey to get to where you are now. Did you always want to conduct, or did that interest develop along the way?
When I played in the orchestra for the first time as a shy 10-year-old violinist, I was so drawn to the person who used body language to help create the biggest sound in the room that I ran home to tell my parents that I wanted to become an orchestral conductor (in essence, to be able to play the largest instrument possible). Coming to Walnut Hill was the first step in making that "impossible dream" a little more possible. It was a long and challenging journey: I had gotten all the degrees possible (master level for both violin and conducting and doctorate level for conducting). However, I almost gave up when I realized that the amount of rejection letters was more than the number of notes I ever conducted. I held in there long enough (with help from family members, mentors, and friends) to get my first break as the Music Director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic (the oldest youth orchestra in the country) and Assistant Conductor of the Oregon Symphony, before winning the prestigious Malko Competition in 2005 and becoming Assistant Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony and Baltimore Symphony, Music Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta (the most diverse orchestra in the nation), and the Memphis Symphony, plus being a guest conductor for many orchestras in the United States, Europe, and Asia over the past decade. Now I have a new position as the Artistic Director for the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival, while also enjoying a busy career as guest conductor with an average of 15 to 20 orchestras each season, in addition to my ongoing music directorship with the Chicago Sinfonietta.
Conducting has brought me to places and enabled me to meet people I never thought possible growing up in Taiwan!
Do you have any lessons or advice for our recently graduated Walnuts who are entering the world?
Continue to build upon the passion that brought us to become artists and to nurture our talents by being curious, creative, and persistent in our efforts! Be ready for everything life throws you—embrace success with humbleness and tackle challenges with fearlessness and courage. Be thankful for everyone who helps in any capacity during our artistic journeys, but remember to give back by helping others!
Believe it is possible even if dreams seem impossible at times, and always try to find a way to make a difference in the world around us with the unique gifts we are given!