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Mei-Ann Chen dazzles in Sinfonietta debut

Mei-Ann Chen new music director Chicago Sinfoniettconducts rehearsal last week Wentz Concert Hall Naperville. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Mei-Ann Chen, the new music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, conducts a rehearsal last week at the Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 11, 2011 4:08PM

She talks the talk and she makes the music, too.

Mei-Ann Chen, the Tai­wan-born, American-trained conductor, has a winning way with words and in interviews and podium remarks expresses her passion for her art form and building programs and community.

Monday night, in her first Orchestra Hall concert and season opener as the new music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, Chen, 38, showed that she is a vibrant and exacting musical leader as well.

Having sold out its Saturday program, the first at its new suburban venue, the Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville, the Sinfonietta brought in more than 1,000 ticketholders to its historic downtown home Monday. A spirited opener of an arrangement by local composer Joe Clark of “My Kind of Town” for the Kennedy-King Marching Band and the Anima Singers of Greater Chicago and an enthusiastic welcome from Chicago’s new culture commissioner, Michelle T. Boone, kicked off both a successful artistic event and a festive evening.

Twenty-first century multiculturalism is global and gender-conscious. That’s one of Chen’s mantras, and her program of works by a Chinese, a pioneering African American, the world’s leading film composer, an encore from her native Taiwan as well as Beethoven’s Fifth and a distinguished black orchestra principal as guest soloist in two of the concert’s pieces fleshed out her claim.

The atmospheric “Saibei Dance” by An-Lun Huang and “The Angel of Formosa” by Tyzen Hsiao framed the concert and were given brisk readings that kept them from being too romantic. The mixed, largely African-American audience, with new contingents of Chinese and Taiwanese families, seemed transfixed by the East meets West exoticism.

Chen, who also heads the Memphis Symphony, has yet to make any instrumental appointments here. But more important, she took the lid off the talented ensemble she’s inherited and helped the players to deliver performances on a higher level than they’ve been able to show in recent years before the retirement of the Sinfonietta’s legendary and pioneering founder, Paul Freeman. The Beethoven sounded as if this were an almost entirely new orchestra.

Harp soloist Ann Hobson Pilot brought history and virtuosity to the stage in William Grant Still’s “Ennanga” (1956) for harp, piano and string orchestra, rich with Ugandan themes and inspiration, and in “On Willows and Birches,” the gentle but intricate concerto written by film music titan and former Boston Pops music director John Williams in 2009 to mark Hobson Pilot’s retirement after 40 years from the Pops and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where she served as principal. She is a hypnotic advocate for an instrument usually on the sidelines of the symphony orchestra.

Throughout, Chen displayed the taut rhythmic drive and the crystal clarity that won her over with the group’s players and search committee during the last two years. Opportunities for additional interpretive depth will follow. The entire evening gave signs of great things to come for this rare talent and orchestra and their unique joint mission.

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

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