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Mei-Ann Chen makes an auspicious debut on the CSO podium

5/9/13 8:42:16 PM .Chicago Symphony Orchestra.Mei-Ann Chen Conductor .    Mendelssohn The Fair MelusinOverture.    Price

5/9/13 8:42:16 PM .Chicago Symphony Orchestra.Mei-Ann Chen, Conductor . Mendelssohn The Fair Melusina Overture. Price Mississippi River. Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade...© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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♦ 8 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and “Beyond the Score,” 3 p.m. Sunday

♦ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

♦ Tickets, $10-$215; “BTS,” $10-$142

♦ (312) 294-3000;

In the weeks between music director Riccardo Muti’s April and June residencies, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has engaged four lower-tier conductors and one tested regular guest, Jaap van Zweden.

To say that a conductor is of a lower tier than a CSO music director is not an insult, it’s a description. There are only a small number of great orchestra leaders at any given time. Conductors of various levels and abilities play crucial roles in heading orchestras of various abilities, sizes and needs. Building young artists, bringing enthusiasm to communities, experimenting with programs are all necessary and important tasks in the larger musical ecosystem. But genuine accomplishments in these areas does not make one an authority with the CSO or the Berlin Philharmonic.

Taiwan-born conductor Mei-Ann Chen has been a terrific match as music director for the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. She has upped the ante for both ensembles, connected strongly with audiences and scoured the world for new and neglected scores. Several efforts have come together for the centerpiece of her CSO subscription-concert debut Thursday at Symphony Center, “The Mississippi River” by Florence Price, which also kicks off a set of “Rivers”-themed concerts this spring.

The Arkansas-born Price, a graduate of Boston’s New England Conservatory and the first black woman to be widely recognized as a symphonic composer, made Chicago her home from 1927 until her death at 66 in 1953. Frederick Stock premiered her first symphony with the CSO at the Auditorium in 1933 as a part of the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Her suite, a kind of tone poem about life and music along the great river, from Minnesota downward to the cradle of spirituals and blues in the South, was written the next year but has received professional performances and a recording only recently. This week marks its premiere CSO performances.

If Price could have had more performances and feedback in her lifetime, surely the piece could have been sharpened and perhaps tightened from its 30-minute length. An opening brass chorale, Native American sounds and rhythms as the journey moves past Iowa and an unusual tiering of spirituals and popular river songs toward the end of the suite are quite attractive and individual. But many of the spirituals excerpts are repeated too often, and transitions are not as convincing as they might be. (Chen will lead Price’s First Symphony with the Northwestern University Symphony at Pick-Staiger on June 6.) Strong pre-concert performances by local tenor Henry Pleas and pianist Charles Hayes of Price song settings also point to the need to hear more of her large catalog more regularly.

There was little for Chen to do with Mendelssohn’s rarely played 1833 “The Fair Melusina” overture, itself practically a repetitive 10-minute loop. Her athletic and at times over-eager, ahead-of-the-beat direction of Rimsky-Korsakov’s much-loved 1888 symphonic suite “Sheherazade” did not do much for this 50-minute work of “Oriental” perfumes, tales and mysteries.

Nor did it hinder it, either, though, as this is a work the CSO plays like no other ensemble. From full-throated themes to the many characteristic solos, these players own this piece. Concertmaster Robert Chen and his violin were the instrumental incarnation of the eponymous narrator, and the four principals of the wind section were four princes of bassoon, clarinet, oboe and flute with principal cello and harp also beautifully floating melodies and invented scales.

Friday afternoon saw the Rimsky taken apart and reassembled over an hour in a very successful installment of Gerard McBurney’s “Beyond the Score” series. Actor Roger Mueller portrayed the composer, Sandra Delgado was Sheherazade herself (in the full five-syllable pronunciation) before beautiful animated scenes by Hillary Leben with galantry shadow cutouts by English sculptor Tim Millar.

As Chen and the full orchestra gave excerpts not only from Rimsky’s work but by those who influenced him such as Balakirev, Borodin and Mussorgsky, Mueller shared the composer’s youth as a naval cadet with a voyage in the mid-19th century that took him as far away from Russia as Manhattan and Brazil, opening his eyes to the exotic.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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