As a student violinist in Taiwan, Mei-Ann Chen always memorized her music so she could watch the conductor.
It was not just a desire to be responsive to the conductor's every direction. She wanted to watch what the conductor did so she could someday be one herself.
"When I played in an orchestra for the first time, when I was 10, I was fascinated with this person who didn't make any sound but connected with so many people to inspire them to make the biggest sound in the room," Chen says. "That, for me, was the 'aha' moment."
Conducting, she discovered, was her form of musical communication.
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The next couple of decades presented a mountainous, curvy road to the podium for the musician, who holds the distinction of being the first student at the New England Conservatory of Music to simultaneously earn master's degrees in conducting and violin. Chen has since held posts as the music director of the Portland (Ore.) Youth Philharmonic and, currently, assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
This week, she is in Lexington in search of her first music directorship of a professional orchestra. She is the 10th and final candidate to succeed George Zack as music director of the Lexington Philharmonic.
"This is a city with a quality of life that's hard to find sometimes," Chen says, looking out the window of the restaurant at the Downtown Lexington Hotel and Conference Center on Tuesday morning. "When you could have a nice place to live and do what you love, that's wonderful.
"Nature does a lot to nourish an artist's spirit."
Chen's artistic life has had the nourishment of "angels" who she says have guided her career, plus "love-at-first-sight" moments in Atlanta and Portland, as well as setbacks in her formative years.
When she was entering middle school, Chen was all set to enter an arts school in Taipei, but her parents got cold feet.
"I'm still their baby girl, and they just felt they would lose their daughter leaving her with a relative in Taipei," Chen says. "So we decided 'let's give up the music career.'"
Except Chen never really gave up music.
She describes being in an academic school as a "blessing," because she didn't get burned out on music but had to work hard to pursue it.
And eventually, an even bigger opportunity found her.
"My violin teacher was the one that never gave up the dream of me studying abroad and becoming a professional musician in the United States," Chen says.
The opportunity presented itself when she was 16 and the Youth Orchestra from the New England Conservatory came through her town. Chen's accompanist took the girl backstage after the concert to meet the conductor, Benjamin Zander.
They arranged an audition the next day, which took place in the only place quiet enough for Chen to play: a closed bar in the basement of the hotel where the New England group was staying.
"Mr. Zander always says, 'I discovered Mei-Ann playing in a bar in Taiwan,'" Chen says with a laugh.
Soon, Chen's father was having to make the toughest journey of his life, halfway around the world to leave his daughter at school in Boston.
Zander eventually provided Chen with the opportunity to conduct, leading to her college career studying violin and conducting.
At a Tuesday night Philharmonic strings rehearsal, Chen devoted lots of time to talking to the violin section about their technique and latching onto the revolutionary spirit of Ludwig Van Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 in C Major.
After several Philharmonic concerts with new and relatively new music by artists such as Osvaldo Golijov and Akira Ifukube, Chen's concert is a trio of time-honored masters and masterworks: Beethoven, Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E minor and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.
"It's the most conservative program I have ever done as a guest conductor," says Chen, who would often work up conducting gigs in college by volunteering to lead premieres of new works by composition students. "Usually I like to do at least one thing unusual to balance with the standard repertoire."
But she says she has realized that the standard repertoire is a great way for her and the orchestra to get to know each other, and if she can bring new colors to familiar works, she can distinguish herself as much as she would by bringing a fabulous new work to town.
Chen says she was particularly touched that Zack programmed a Brahms symphony, one of the hallmarks of his 37-year tenure with the orchestra, for her concert.
"I was so honored to be able to do something that was his trademark repertoire," she says.
The only bigger honor would be giving Chen the big job.