Conductor Mei-Ann Chen has a great answer to the question of whether she misses performing violin.
No, the Taiwanese-American conductor who earned a performance degree in violin will tell you.
“In some ways, I have the biggest instrument on stage. I get to play every color possible, even though I’m not the one making sound,” she said last week as she prepared to return to the Tucson Symphony Orchestra for the classics series finale “Sailing with Scheherazade” this weekend. “I get to be part of the lower strings, the brass, the percussion. I love the whole palette of the orchestra,” she said.
This weekend, she will employ the full range of orchestral colors for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” a symphonic suite that Chen described as a concerto for orchestra.
“This is a very risky piece because you don’t have control,” said Chen, music director of the Memphis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta who guest conducted the TSO in 2012. “You can set the tempo and everybody either comes in with you or follows you. But this piece is more of a collaboration, and that’s what I love about it.”
“Scheherazade,” the Russian composer’s late 19th century retelling of the classic Persian tale of “One Thousand and One Nights,” assigns signature solo parts to the bassoon and violin, and solo turns to every section fo the orchestra.
“Your soloist is the orchestra,”Chen explained, comparing the musicians to singers in an opera. “Those are the folks making the sound. You can’t just rush them. It forces you to listen very carefully to what people are trying to say. You let it happen, and I actually think that’s very beautiful. It’s not about control; it’s about working together to come up with a result that is bigger and more powerful than any of us could achieve.”
Chen has conducted “Scheherazade” a number of times in her nearly 20-year career, with top orchestras in the world including the Chicago Symphony. With the soloistic nature of the piece, each time she performs it is entirely different, she noted, since no two orchestras are alike. Which is why Chen never approaches the piece the same way.
“I like to give the space to the orchestra to create that with me, and that’s why every one of them is different,” she said.
The TSO paired “Scheherazade” with Bohemian composer Smetana’s “The Moldau,” which evokes the flow of the Vltava River in the Czech Republic; and Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from “Peter Grimes.”
“I love this program,” Chen said. “You are going to hear very different takes of composers on water in one way or another.”
The four-movement “Scheherazade” is bookended by two movements centered on water: the opening “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” and the final movement, “Festival at Baghdad,” which includes the dramatic scene of the bronze horseman breaking the ship against the sea wall.