Orchestrating the Next 100 Years: Maestro Marlon Chen of the Manila Symphony Orchestra

December 20, 2023 – Alike Editorial

Marlon Chen has big plans for the Manila Symphony Orchestra. He joined the company as Musical Director and Principal Conductor in 2019, and is looking forward to being a part of the orchestra’s landmark centennial anniversary this 2026. “I think making the Manila Symphony Orchestra into one of the premiere Asian orchestras in the world is a great Bucket List goal,” he shared with enthusiasm. “So I’m working very hard to make that happen.”

Born in Taiwan, but raised in Houston, Texas, Chen first fell in love with music in his early teen years. “I went to an art’s high school and all my friends were doing it, so it kind of snowballed from there,” he shared. “I started on the piano, then the clarinet in high school, where I played for the orchestra.” Chen remembers attending the concerts of famed German singer and pianist Christoph Eschenbach as a young man. “He was the Musical Director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra at the time, and he was my biggest musical influence. All of his concerts were so electrifying. He left a great impression on me.”

Chen attended the University of Michigan as a Music Major, before moving back to Texas to acquire his Masters in Conducting at Rice University. He began his professional career as the Musical Director of the Youth Orchestra in San Antonio, where he stayed for seven years. Chen then traveled to Paris, where he worked as a freelance conductor, assisting maestros such as Paavo Järvi and Kristjan Järvi. While living in Europe, the artist also dedicated time to record the scores of television shows Sense8 and Babylon Berlin. As his reputation as a skilled conductor grew, so did the opportunities. Chen began to guest conduct in various orchestras around the world, including the Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO). One thing led to another, and he was soon asked to assume the role as the MSO’s Musical Director and Principal Conductor.

“Our Executive Director Jeffrey Solares who invited me, recently said at a Rush Hour concert that the Manila Symphony Orchestra and myself discovered each other,” he says looking back. “I thought that was a beautiful way to put it, because like many things in life, it’s all about chemistry. The MSO and I have great chemistry on stage. We dance well together—very naturally. There are so many things that just happen between us that is unspoken and invisible, seen and unseen, heard and unheard.” As Musical Director and Principal Conductor, Chen’s job requires more than being the face of the MSO. He is tasked to program their music, invite various artists for collaborations, and help the organization to raise funds for their foundation. Ultimately, his job requires him to bring up the level and artistry of the organization in any way he can—a task that Chen is very prepared and happy to do.

Since his arrival, the MSO has had many firsts. In his first year on the job, he took the orchestra on their first international tour to China. In 2022, they performed on the world stage at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater Concert Hall in Japan. As their 100th birthday approaches, Chen and the MSO are busy at work planning even bigger things. The organization is in early stages of planning a US Carnegie Hall Tour and the first ever European concert tour at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg—which is historic for the orchestra, and major win for Filipino artistry and representation on the international music stage.

Chen also shares that he and the MSO are trying to find a permanent home for the orchestra in the Philippines. Surprisingly, the orchestra still doesn’t have a concert hall of their own, despite being the country’s longest surviving artistic institution. “We have converted [parts] of the Ayala Museum into concert spaces, we have performed at the Samsung Theater, the CCP, and at the GSIS Theater. But of course, we’d love to find a beautiful concert hall for the orchestra. We just want to ensure that the next 100 years will be ever-growing for the MSO.”

Up next for Chen and the orchestra is a concert at the Ayala Museum this December 9, 2023, which will celebrate Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th anniversary. The MSO has invited acclaimed Filipino-American Pianist Victor Asuncion to perform Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3. In addition, the orchestra will be performing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1. Chen shares that preparing for these kinds of concerts are demanding, but ultimately very fun and rewarding. Long days and stressful rehearsal sessions aren’t really an issue when you’ve found the perfect synergy with your musicians.

“When you have a big orchestra, there is a lot of logistics,” he says. “There are many times during rehearsal when you need to stop and just give direction. But I think we’ve worked out a certain synergy, where we don’t really need to worry about the small details. I trust them to get the job done—to know their music and when to come in—and they trust me to show them the big picture, and we just go from there. I do believe, that ultimately, the idea of an orchestra is this manifestation of trust. People are working together, playing music together, trusting each other, and we all strive to be unified as one voice—something akin to making a true sense of harmony not just in music but a harmony on earth."

As a conductor, Chen categorizes himself as an “altruistic perfectionist”, or someone who wants ultimate perfection while having a selfless concern for the well-being of his orchestra members. He laughs at the idea of the “altruistic perfectionist” being so contradictory, but it doesn’t make it any less true. “I want everybody to be full of love when they give to one another as we play,” he explains with a smile. “But in the same time, I want perfection in our giving. It’s a challenge to get both in at the same time. I hope I’m not a micromanager, but I do believe that details matter.” The end goal for Marlon Chen is to uplift the reputation and legacy of the Manila Symphony Orchestra. His off-beat leadership style, breezy personality, and unending passion for success will surely lend a positive hand to the next 100 years of MSO’s enduring history.


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