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    Mei-Ann Chen, Sinfonietta receive top national honors

    By Andrew Panter - Chicago Sun Times -

    Mei-Ann Chen is in her first full season as music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, but she’s just garnered one of the top national awards for younger conductors and helped lead the group to its own top prize for programming.

    The Taiwan-born Chen, not yet 40, received the bi­annual Helen M. Thompson Award from the League of American Orchestras at its annual meeting this week in Dallas. The honor goes every two years to a music director “the potential for an important national and/or international career.” Previous recipients include Alan Gilbert, now music director of the New York Philharmonic, who won in 1994.

    In addition, the Sinfonietta, which this fall will mark the 25th anniversary of its founding by music director laureate Paul Freeman, received an ASCAP Award for adventurous programming of contemporary music. This season’s Sinfonietta concerts have included works by An-Lun Huang, John Williams and Michael Gandolfi and a world premiere from jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell.

    For one ensemble to receive both awards in the same year is an extremely unusual occurrence.

    Chen, who’s also music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, has been a hit with audiences and with the acclaimed local orchestra, dedicated to a mission of promoting racial and gender diversity along with musical excellence. The longstanding criteria for the award sound as if they were tailored to Chen: “fostering outstanding artistic growth, programming with creativity and innovation, deepening and expanding audience involvement, engaging the community in the life of the orchestra and vice versa and demonstrating exemplary leadership in staff, board and musician relations.”

    The Sinfonietta will close its 2011-12 season with concerts June 16 in Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville and June 18 at Symphony Center, with guests the Harlem Quartet in works by Michael Abels and the late Benjamin Lees and a world premiere arrangement by Randall Fleischer of “West Side Story Concerto” for String Quartet and Orchestra, after Leonard Bernstein.

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