Julie Amacher | Classical MPR
Mei-Ann Chen grew up in Taiwan. She was a shy violinist with a much bigger goal.
"It was the light bulb moment for me, when I thought, why not play the biggest instrument in the room? So, I took the matters into my own hand of coming to rehearsals with my violin parts completely memorized so I could learn from observation."
In 2011, Mei-Ann was chosen to succeed founder Paul Freeman as music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta. She describes this ensemble as the mightiest boutique orchestra in the country because of the tremendous impact they can have with limited resources.
"I was so honored to have carried his torch to champion for minorities, and in this case, to continue the work to champion for women composers. We're just so happy to sort of be at the front end of that wave, of recognizing that they're incredible works by women that deserve recognition."
And now you're extending that into this new recording, which is called Project W, featuring works by diverse women composers. You start off with Florence Price, and this is an arrangement that's a world premiere arrangement, it's not been recorded before, is that what that means?
"Correct. I wanted to program the Canebrakes, but it was written for piano and I discovered her childhood friend, William Grant Still, who many of us consider the dean of African-American composers. He has orchestrated for her because after she wrote the Canebrakes pieces for piano, she had a stroke and passed away."
One of the things that I noticed is that several of these works have a dance theme to it. Was this intentional, to kind of have this dance vibe?
"Yes, I'm so glad you caught that. It actually stemmed from Florence Price's Dances in the Canebrake as the centerpiece of this album.
"And so, Jennifer Higdon's Dance Card, that was a pure beautiful coincidence, because by the time we were talking about other commissions, Jennifer has already written the Dance Card. It has her quintessential rhythm, but this also takes one step further. It has humor. It has extensions of reference in other music that may not be so direct. You know, like the last dance has this moment where Jennifer said 'Think about the Tchaikovsky Serenade or Bartok,' you know, that kind of energy."
Let's talk about this piece that was written by Reena Esmail. It's a very powerful work on many levels. Will you please talk about this piece, called #metoo?
"When she was writing this piece, she has to come to grapple with her own experience. She approached us and said would it be okay for her to change the title to #metoo. When she came to the rehearsal I had to literally have her talk a little bit about the piece, but then really had her sing the ragas that she has incorporated into the orchestra work.
"So, Reena, taking it one step further, honoring the woman's voice in the orchestra, she had in the score a specific place where the women in the orchestra will start singing. And at first, our musicians are very timid. You know, nobody wants to really stand out. And we have to encourage their singing to come through because it's part of what's unique about the piece."
Mei-Ann Chen and the Chicago Sinfonietta, lifting up the voices of diverse, women composers with Project W.
To hear the rest of my conversation, download the extended podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.