Gregor Tassie Interviews Elim Chan

Elim Chan (c) Willeke Machiels

The young Chinese conductor Elim Chan has enjoyed a highly successful career since she won her breakthrough competition at the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition roughly four years ago and which immediately gave her the opportunity of working as an assistant conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra. In London she had the opportunity of being mentored by Valery Gergiev (who invited her to conduct the Mariinsky Orchestra in St Petersburg), Michael Tilson-Thomas and Sir Antonio Pappano. In 2017 she was appointed chief conductor at Norrlandsoperan in Umea, Sweden, and principal guest conductor at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and at the beginning of 2018, she was appointed chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra from the 2019-2020 season. In a short period, Chan has worked with some of the best orchestras worldwide, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Elim Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1986, and played piano, cello and sang in choirs at her school before she moved to study for a doctorate in medicine, specialising in psychology and forensic science at Michigan, before she decided to take up music studies at Massachusetts in her third year where she conducted the Verdi Requiem and decided to become a conductor. Attending masterclasses with Bernard Haitink gave her the confidence to pursue this difficult and lonely career. A significant part of her success has been forged with the RSNO, managing to establish a mutual rapport on her first visit in 2017, and has several concerts with them and also the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in coming months. I spoke to her in between her first concert as principal guest conductor of the RSNO, and her debut with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

GT: Did you come from a musical family?

EC: No, my parents are not musical, I am the only one really who is a professional musician, I have a younger sister and younger brother who play instruments; the violin and oboe. I also sang in a choir when I was young. My parents supported me in music.

GT: What made you study psychology in your university course?

EC: Yes, that is a bit confusing, at the time I went to college, I took at first the medicine route and aimed towards psychology, to become a psychiatrist in the forensics area. This was my subject for at least two years at the university, and then by the third year, I knew that it had to be music, and switched to the conducting course.

GT: What made you give up this course in medicine and decide to become a musician?

EC: It is a long story, the first time I conducted was when I was 12 or 13, I had always sung in choirs, my teacher in secondary school said that I should take a chance conducting the choir, so I had the experience. But I never took it seriously, you know it was like a hobby, but I loved it, and never thought it would become a career. Then I went to the US, when I started my bachelor’s degree, you know I still loved music, so I joined the university choir as a hobby, interestingly after the auditions the conductor said, ‘Elim, why don’t you be my assistant? You can help me.’ I thought, oh, great, but never thought it would become something bigger. So after classes, I would go to rehearsals, and they suggested, ‘why don’t you conduct a piece in the concert?’ Then there sparked this thought as I really loved it and it feels natural, but what really changed everything was in my second year, when I was 19 or 20 years old, when our choir was performing Verdi’s Requiem. My teacher said he would go into the hall, ‘Why don’t you conduct some parts of the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem?’, I said okay, and the experience really shook me, the power of the music and at the moment I knew I really have to do this, I can’t run away from music anymore. So I switched and the rest is history.

GT: Do you have any mentors in your career?

EC: Yes, absolutely, I would say that I got a lot of support from my professors, and the whole music department, in an intensive music programme, my professor saw something in me, everyone helped me, actually my advisor who helped me formulate my music making had a musical career and she advised how to be a conductor. The main conductor of the orchestra – despite the limited resources – gave me the opportunity to conduct the Egmont overture in my third year, and how to figure it out myself. I went to some masterclasses, in my third year in 2008, that summer I met my teacher in Michigan, and he then saw something in me and believed in me. Afterwards in my final year, I was studying to get a postgraduate programme in Michigan, my piano teacher, my voice teacher who is also my adviser, the director of the orchestra, all rallied together and helped me get through, everyone was very supportive, it wasn’t just one person. It was a collective of people who really believed in me.

GT: I interviewed a conductor a few months ago and he told me when he was 11 or 12 he conducted Tchaikovsky’s Fifth listening to Mravinsky’s recording. Do you make time to listen to recordings when you are learning a piece of music, and other conductors’ recordings?

EC: [She laughs] I also went through that, I came to recordings through my father – he’s a painter – he had these classical music recordings and would play them so that’s how I heard the Strauss polkas, and waltzes, as well as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and I sort of move my arms to it. You know when I prepare the programmes, I listen to a lot of recordings, as many as twelve; there are so many from historical and from modern times. It’s really helpful understanding the tradition that has come down, and I make notes, such as Furtwängler does this, and Kleiber does this, so you sort of see what works and what doesn’t work, and I stay open-minded during this process. Then I study the score, and I go through all these places where each conductor had his way, and actually I find it very helpful. Recordings are a resource, because I can’t always have a mentor who I can call upon although I met Tony Pappano at the LSO when I was an assistant there and he is a great mentor, he is someone who if I have a question I can call but of course he’s very busy, I don’t expect him to pick up my call at any moment. But from all of this, I can build up my own interpretation.

GT: Do you have any favourite composers?

EC: I think for me, I do love Rachmaninov. I have been doing a lot of Russian music, and I have a special feeling for Rachmaninov, it seems somehow very natural, I can feel it, I find it very easy to embody. I know how to go in and out of it, I love the Symphonic Dances, last week I did it with the RSNO (review click here), and I am doing it this week with the CBSO, it’s already changed a bit from last year when I did it in Hong Kong and it was just great because I can see something is growing, Rachmaninov’s Second which I did here when Neeme Järvi cancelled, that again is something I have in my gut, another [composer] is Stravinsky, also Bartók, I love rhythm, both of them write in beautiful colours in the way they write for orchestra, its not just about rhythm, like the way the Rite of Spring is written, there are these beautifully written orchestral parts, you find the perfect balance to hear these details, the pulsating parts, I think I love these, but I also love Mendelssohn, it’s funny that for a long time I stayed away from Mendelssohn. I thought it was difficult, you know the Fourth ‘Italian’ Symphony, and the ‘Scottish’ Symphony, but somehow this music came knocking on my door and I had to do it. One of the first was with the RSNO, and we did the Mendelssohn Fourth, it opened up a different part of me, it felt quite natural in the way that I conduct. So I don’t know as there are so many composers, but it is these composers who make me smile and excited when I think of them.

GT: What about new music, you have conducted pieces by some women composers recently?

EC: Contemporary music is something I am keen to do, there are so many composers working now. I love working with them, I will always talk to the composer, I can ask them what are the inspirations behind the [music]. I love the composer being at the rehearsals, and immediately you can find out what he or she wants. I appreciate this feedback, it can come out completely differently, actually I like this live process and hope there is a second performance after the premiere. The premiere is always so exciting, but after [the premiere] the music stops as if it died; it’s so difficult to get a second performance. I would like to build these great new pieces into the permanent repertoire.

GT: You are a conductor at Norrlandsoperan in Sweden, are you attracted to opera and ballet?

EC: Actually I am no longer there, I stepped down as the chief [conductor] because I have so much work and now I have this chief conductorship in Antwerp in Belgium next year. Definitely, I want to do opera, but I don’t want to rush into it; the whole process of working with singers is what I want to do. It’s difficult to take out three months in my schedule but I want to do it well.

GT: You have had an exciting four years since you won the conducting competition in London, what has been the biggest experience so far in your short career?

EC: Well it is funny and I’m glad you asked me because there have been so many things happening, I never really stop and actually I like to step back and take a deep breath. I have to say that the whole experience with the RSNO was really extraordinary because these regional concerts last year [Kirkcaldy and Musselburgh], with the Mendelssohn Hebrides overture and Fourth Symphony, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and the Koussevitzky Double Bass Concerto with Ana Cordoba worked immediately, we just went with all these works, and I even thought, do they like me? We worked so intense, and it was then like wow, it was great, they really delivered, so then [two weeks later] I got to go back when Neeme Järvi got sick, and actually at first I was not so sure to take it because that week was my only free week in February. So I was a little protective of my free time, but the orchestra was really keen to have me, so I also thought I should do this, it really confirmed something I experienced with the orchestra and knew it was going to happen. And then I got this position [of principal guest conductor] which was really beautiful and special – now I am really looking forward to February. This orchestra when they go into concert really go for it, they have a crazy schedule; they have so many concerts, but when they really deliver, it makes me smile, this position works for me.

GT: Do you have any favourite performers?

EC: I am really excited to bring Lukâš Vondrâček, a Czech pianist to my next [RSNO] concert in February, he is someone I bonded with so well when we worked together, and we also became good friends, with him the music comes out raw, beyond limits, and I would love the Scottish audience to get to know him, he is very humble. Another musician is Benjamin Beilman – we worked together in Chicago – and again I found it worked immediately, and also Benjamin Grosvenor who I had never met before until now, and we are trying to find opportunities to work together again. I’m so glad the RSNO took my suggestions of Lukâš and Benjamin to work with me, I am bringing them not only as my friends but because I believe in them and in their ability absolutely.

GT: How do you cope with the constant travel across Europe and elsewhere, do you manage to catch up with family and friends?

EC: I think it’s tricky because something happened last year that taught me a lesson because in the week that I stepped in for Neeme Järvi, afterwards I went to the Detroit Symphony, where I had four concerts and actually had to cancel one because I had a high fever and after Detroit I went to Hong Kong and in the 3 or 4 days there, I got pneumonia, and had to cancel two months of work. That experience was a shock, like a hammer[blow] to my head, and then I decided to organize my time; how many times I am going to work, and balancing my family and my free time. It woke me up, so now I am more strict on how much work I am taking on and you know my grandmother who is still in Hong Kong, I care about her very much, just making a call to her and talking to her makes a difference, to get that for yourself, all that glamour, the fame gives excitement, its intoxicating and you’re in that bubble, and forget everything else. My experience last year reminded me what this is – its like a marathon – I want to stay in the race as long as I can, maybe like [Herbert] Blomstedt who is 92, he is very healthy, more than a lot of other people! There is this way, how to do all that and still be happy, enjoy the process, now after last year, I have to protect myself, to have this [career], and then I can build up this work.

GT: Is there anything that would make you change your life?

EC: Nothing will stop me, my family and my fiancée are now supportive, (he is also a musician) and we have decided we will commit ourselves to our career, but also don’t want to talk about the wider career, I am very open, I am trying to build myself and grow where life takes me, of course I want to conduct the best orchestras in the world, I also think that I keep this openness, to see what life brings me, I can always have these plans, but you know in these last four years, every time I plan something in life then there come surprises like when the RSNO came along and so I just follow [the course], it’s okay I take it, also I am very aware of how much I can take, if my gut tells me don’t go there, I won’t go there. I also tell myself that life is more than just a career, I think that what I believe is a bigger thing than just jet-setting, all the hotels, and a comfortable life style, I get tired of that after two weeks. Every season I go and do projects with a youth orchestra, it’s not so glamorous, and people say why do you do that, I love it because it re-energises me, it also reminds me why I am doing this, I believe in what I do. So I do that every season, whatever career I have I will always do that, working with young people. I hope I am answering your question as I try to stay very open.

GT: Next year you are taking on the chief conductorship of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, the opportunity of choosing your own programmes must be interesting for you?

EC: I am very happy to have the RSNO, and the Antwerp SO, two places where I trust the musicians and they trust me, and think this is the better way of working than just as a guest conductor, I have to impress people in such a short time and so for me to have my own orchestra is wonderful, I can take a deep breath and step back. You know, I hope [that I have] a lot of freedom to do what I want, I think I have ten concerts in Antwerp and like the RSNO, you can do a lot with them, in this first season I am covering a lot of territory, first the Rite of Spring, then Dvořák which I haven’t done before, I will do pieces which are my forte but I will do pieces that we’ll see what will happen, try out lesser known pieces and do it with the orchestra you trust. Actually they changed the name of the orchestra, it used to be the Royal Flemish Orchestra, and they have had great chief conductors such as Edo de Waart, Jaap van Zweden and they have a good tradition. Now they have a new brand name, and with me going there, its very exciting! They also have a new concert hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, right next to the station, so it’s a new time, there’s a buzz, I am excited about it.

Gregor Tassie

For more about Elim Chan click here.

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