Taking one world, one orchestra at a time

Taking one world, one orchestra at a time

At merely 33 and looking half her age, Elim Chan is taking the world by storm. Born and raised in Hong Kong, despite coming from a non-musical family, she has always had music in her life. She played the piano, sang in choirs and played the cello in the Hong Kong Children’s Symphony Orchestra. The first celebrity to pique her interest in conducting was – wait for it – Mickey Mouse. When she watched the Disney icon in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia, she thought it would be cool to become a conductor. While in Grade 3, Chan attended a concert for students put on by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, led by a female conductor. Chan remembers the experience well, and at the time, the idea of a female conductor was nothing out of the ordinary to her. Fast forward a few years, she conducted her high school choir to win a major competition. Still, she thought of conducting as a hobby. She was drawn to psychology and decided to pursue pre-medical studies at Smith College in Massachusetts. While singing in the college choir, the conductor noticed she had a good ear and made her assistant conductor. In her sophomore year, Chan conducted a rehearsal of Verdi’s Requiem and a thunderbolt moment came during the Dies Irae. “After conducting that music, I couldn’t go back,” she said. “I felt something changed in my life.” Chan switched to a major in music, obtaining a Bachelor’s from Smith, followed by a Master’s and DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) from the University of Michigan. In 2014, the final year of her doctorate, she became the first woman to win the Donatella Flick Conducting Competiton of the London Symphony Orchestra. “I did not sleep all night,” she said. “I missed my flight the next morning while BBC and everyone else were calling me for an interview. But all I could think of was to catch the next flight so I could get back to school!”

Chan became assistant conductor of the LSO in 2015-16, a year when LSO did not have a music director, allowing her to work with many guest conductors, including Simon Rattle, André Previn and Daniel Harding. “It was such an invaluable experience, spending everyday watching and listening to one of the best orchestras in the world, and receiving a new lesson each week from a different conductor.” She cites Valery Gergiev, Bernard Haitink and Antonio Pappano as her most important influences. Gergiev was notorious for arriving late at rehearsals or not at all, which gave Chan many opportunities to step onto the podium. “But when Gergiev was there,” she says, “he led some of the most exhilarating performances I have ever heard, especially in the Russian repertoire.” Haitink at the Lucerne Festival gave her a compliment that continues to inspire her: “Elim, when you conduct, you make me listen.” She has a special relationship with Pappano, who “shared so much about music and the score and was always generous with his time.” He invited her to many rehearsals and performances at Covent Garden, and is still someone she writes to for career advice.

After London came the Dudamel fellowship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and many guest conducting engagements around the world, including her “homecoming” to the Hong Kong Philharmonic. She has served as principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra since 2018-19 and is in her inaugural season as chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, being the youngest person and first female to take that role. She describes Antwerp as an orchestra that is at the same developmental stage as herself, one with which she can grow together. “I want the musicians to have the hunger to work hard, be better and have the willingness to go deep to build something,” she says. “To be open-minded, so I can do things in a fresh way and not be bound by traditions or other conductors’ interpretations.” As a conductor, she strives to be a collaborator, someone who motivates the musicians to go the extra mile in a positive and constructive way. Last February, when Chan first walked on stage for her Toronto Symphony Orchestra debut, there were a few gasps of surprise from the audience, not because she is Asian or female, but because her petite stature and youthful appearance made her look like the youngest person on the stage. The she began conducting. “Elim is extremely musical, has a very clear beat, an enjoyable personality and knows the score very well,” said TSO violinist James Wallenberg. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the work that ultimately won her the Frick-LSO conducting competition title, has become her calling card. She counts repertoire from Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók among her favourites. In time and with more experience, Chan would love to tackle more challenging repertoire from Mahler, Bruckner and Brahms. Chan feels that the increased prominence of female conductors and big triumphs in gender equality have worked to her advantage. “The next challenge,” she says, “is not to ride on this wave but define myself as a conductor.” Austrian and German markets are still difficult to break into. As for advice to women who aspire to a career in conducting, Chan offers this: “It is not an easy path and many people will say no to you. If you love this, step out of your comfort zone and keep going. Listen to your heart. It is always the correct voice.”

–  by Denise Lai, La Scena Musical


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