Meet the Maestro: Elim Chan2:15, 4th May 2016
A stint as the LSO’s assistant conductor following her win at the Donatella Flick competition has served the young Hongkonger well. She talked to Toby Deller a couple of weeks before securing the principal conductor job at Sweden’s Norrlands Operan
It can leave uncertain conductors with egg on their face before they have made more than a couple of beats. But for Elim Chan it has been a harbinger of good fortune. ‘The first piece I ever conducted for real, in a concert, was the Beethoven Egmont overture. Then in the competition final that’s the piece that came back to me, almost like a full circle.’
Chan is in her second year as the London Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor, a position she earned by winning the 2014 Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition. The Beethoven was one of the set works in the final, making it the first piece she ever conducted with the LSO too.
But it was the experience of finding herself rehearsing another piece that set her on her way. Although she had always sung in choirs and played the cello in youth orchestras in Hong Kong, where she was born, she had moved to the US to study to be a doctor.
‘It was kind of sleeping, this whole passion. But it got woken up again when I went to the States. It was my second year in my university that I got the chance. The conductor at the time said, “Oh, Elim, can you just do the Dies Irae (from Verdi’s Requiem)?” I said, “Ok, sure.” That moment just changed my life. That sound and with the orchestra, that’s when I knew.’
She recalls people around her being immediately encouraging, suggesting she should consider taking conducting seriously. Eventually she did, first as a music major at Smith College in Massachusetts then with Kenneth Kiesler at the University of Michigan. Indeed, it was while finishing her doctorate there that she won her prize in London.
Not that she had any professional experience – outside her immediate studies she was conducting university orchestras and had received invitations to workshops with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and at the National Arts Centre Summer Music Institute in Canada.
‘Of course, all those little experiences help – I remember in Canada I did the finale of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony in a concert. The concertmaster came up to me after and told me, “You know, you have to listen to a professional orchestra”. Of course I nodded and thought ok, yeah yeah. But I wouldn’t say I fully understood what he meant until now.’
It was advice she admits struggling to follow in the first part of her competition final as she felt the pressure to take command. ‘A part of me was just: Be great, show it all. And then another part of me was: Listen, listen to them, be open, because they are going to be giving me a lot of information.’ But a friendly word from one of the players – ‘Drop the idea of impressing us. Just do the work, get up there, be with us, don’t worry,’ in Chan’s words – helped steer her to the winning course. In the end she was overwhelmingly the orchestra’s favourite of the three finalists.
Since moving to London last June, she has continued the relationship, appearing with the orchestra as part of its Soundhub and Discovery programmes. As assistant conductor she has also had the chance to watch and help various conductors in rehearsals including music director designate Simon Rattle and the man he succeeds, Valery Gergiev. Indeed, not only did Gergiev entrust her with the orchestra for some of the preparations for its Prokofiev complete piano concertos programme for the Proms, he then invited her to conduct his Mariinsky Theatre orchestra for concerts in St Petersburg and Mexico earlier this year.
Engagements elsewhere are picking up rapidly, with many debuts in Europe, Australia and North America, and also at this summer’s Lucerne Festival. She has even been back to Hong Kong, making her first appearance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic in December. (It will be interesting to see how that relationship develops, given that current conductor Jaap van Zweden takes up the vacancy at the New York Philharmonic in 2017.)
Meanwhile the LSO will be choosing its next assistant at the 2016 competition in November. But Chan hopes that will not be the end of her connection to a group of players who have seen her flourish.
‘My priority, my biggest wish, is that I can keep my relationship with LSO in some sort of way. I don’t know how to put this but the LSO doesn’t really have a music director at this time because they are waiting for Simon and Gergiev has left, so at first I was a little worried because it seemed like I didn’t have a mentor, someone I can go to and ask how do I do things. But amazingly it turned out that the orchestra itself has become my mentor.’
1988 Born Hong Kong
2009 Graduates in music from Smith College
2011 Masters in conducting from University of Michigan, studying with Kenneth Kiesler
2012 Invited by Pinchas Zukerman to attend NAC Summer Music Institute, Ottawa
2013 Awarded Bruno Walter Conducting Scholarship
2014 Doctorate in orchestral conducting from the University of Michigan
2014 Wins Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition
2016 Announced as next principal conductor of Norrlands Operan in Sweden, starting in 2017