Guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen part of the small circle of female conductors
Mei-Ann Chen, who will guest-conduct at next weekend's Sarasota Orchestra Masterworks series, does not know Anu Tali, the orchestra's music director. But she knows of her.
The two belong to a small group of female classical music conductors in the United States. According to the League of American Orchestras, about 10 percent of the largest ensembles in the country are led by women.
Although the two women haven't met —like most conductors, they crisscross the country (or in Tali's case, the world) leading orchestras in programs that rarely afford opportunities to meet peers — they share a surprising bit of background.
Chen, a native of Taiwan, established her career in Scandinavia, in the same corner of the world as Tali, who is from Estonia and who, in addition to her Sarasota Orchestra duties, is music director of the Nordic National Symphony.
Chen is music director of the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta, giving her a shorter commute than the more than 5,000-mile commute (as the crow flies) for Tali.
For the sixth Masterworks program of the season, Chen will lead the orchestra in Ravel's Concerto in G Major, with French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard as soloist, Chinese and Canadian composer An-Lun Huang's "Saibei Dance" from Saibei Suite No. 2, and, for Chen, the high point, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade."
Composed in 1888, "Scheherazade" is based on "One Thousand and One Nights," and tells the story of a sultan who dispatches each of his wives after their wedding night, until he marries Scheherazade, who night after night spins an endless magical story.
"It features every section of the orchestra in such virtuosic playing," said Chen. "I like to take what's there and see how can I cook a wonderful meal with the ingredients I have.
"I think it's a piece that literally puts everyone in the driver's seat," she said. "This piece, more than any other piece in my experience, this piece is so elastic. You take time with it, or not, depending on how the orchestra is feeding you in terms of its natural inclination."
There are solos "all over the place" in the work, including one for one of Chen's classmates at the New England Conservatory of Music, principal clarinet Bharat Chandra.
"My job is to forge all that individual creativity into one voice," said Chen.
The challenge as a guest conductor is to turn an orchestra of 80 or 90 musicians, most of them strangers, "into a powerful force in such a short time."
Chen likens it to speed dating.
"Usually you are given four rehearsals before a subscription series of concerts," she said. "What I often do with a new orchestra is to try to let them get to know me. and part of my job is not to just take what's there, but like a chef, take the ingredients presented to you and then you cook a meal."
MASTERWORKS SERIES: EXOTIC STORIES. Mei-Ann Chen, guest conductor, Jean-Philippe Collard, piano. 8 p.m. March 7, Neel Performing Arts Center, 5840 26th St. W., Bradenton, 8 p.m. March 8 and 2:30 p.m. March 9, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets $30-$84. 953-3434; www.sarasotaorchestra.org.