Interview with Elim Chan

©Willeke Machiels

Hong Kong-born conductor, Elim Chan, bypasses prejudice with her uncompromised professionalism. She maintains an impressive internal balance while remaining perfectly focused in her ultra-successful conducting career. Chan’s work shines brilliantly across Europe, the United States, as well as her home country of Hong Kong; though it all began almost by chance.

Daniela Shemer: Is it true that you began your university career in the field of medicine?

Elim Chan: Well, more so sciences. I studied in the States, and there you have to complete preparatory studies before actually starting med school. At the time, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do yet, but I liked sciences, so I went into biology, chemistry, and psychology. Other than dreaming of becoming a musician, I had this image in mind of working in a lab – searching for the truth, getting closer to crime scenes, and helping solve mysteries.

DS: Then what happened?

EC: My heart just wasn’t there. It wasn’t strong enough. I played piano and cello when I was younger, and actually never stopped playing music. Even after I set it aside to begin my Bachelors of Science, somehow music just kept knocking on my door. One thing after another, it reentered my life.

DS: When was the first time you held the baton?

EC: I was 12 years old and singing in the school’s choir. One day the conductor came up to me and asked if I would conduct this one piece in the performance…and that’s how I started.

DS: That’s quite incredible. I mean no offence but why would he ask a 12-year-old without any formal training to conduct a concert?

EC: I guess he saw something in me. The same thing happened in university several years later. There was a choir on campus and I signed up. After completing a small audition, the teacher came to me and asked if I would take over conducting one of the works in the next concert. I said, “Sure, why not?” People started telling me, “You really should do it,” but I was in a battle with myself. For a long time I thought I couldn’t play music. I was scared.

DS: Of what?

EC: That I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t start at a young enough age, that I wasn’t a prodigy. I also had no idea how to become a conductor. Even the logistics were a mystery to me. Of course in Europe, you can start in an opera house, you can play piano, but I was in Hong Kong, far from these paths and really had no idea how to achieve this.

But somehow one thing led to another, and the opportunities kept coming. The university choir performed Verdi’s Requiem, and as we reached the Dies irae, the conductor wanted to step outside and listen from the hall. So he turned to me and asked if I would take over. I thought to myself, “Well, I had studied the piece. What’s there to lose?” After that, I realized that this was happening often enough, and that I should stop fighting it. I felt I had to give it a go.

DS: Your career practically exploded after winning the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, which led to a yearlong contract with the London Symphony Orchestra. What do you recall from that year?

EC: It was a critical time. During that year, I listened to the orchestra everyday, and saw tons of guest conductors come through. The members of the orchestra taught me a lot and I still believe that at the end of the day, the musicians are the ones who have the most to offer. After all, they are the ones who have been exposed to and worked under the most conductors, and they are the ones who know what works and what doesn’t.

DS: Sure, it’s logical. Musicians simply have that experience.

EC: Exactly! There was a moment that I realized, “Here I am, doing this piece for the first time, and here are people who have done it so many times before, with so many different conductors…just ask them and listen.” I believe many musicians are very generous if you just go and talk to them.

DS: Starting next season, you will be taking on the role as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Which pieces are you eager to tackle first?

EC: Quite a lot of Russian music and standard repertoire, at least in the beginning. Later we can venture into contemporary music as well.

DS: What are your thoughts on performing new music?

EC: I think it’s very important. As long as the art is of a certain quality, both male and female composers deserve to be heard. I conduct at least one new piece for almost every program – especially when I am in Sweden. In Sweden, they are driven to promote both Swedish contemporary music and women composers, which is wonderful. I work in Sweden quite a lot, and I feel that the local audience has an appetite for new music. They want to hear things that are different, which is cool.

The scene in London is also quite adventurous. There are a few contemporary composers there that I am really keen on adding to my program.

DS: Can you let us in on some of them?

EC: Anna Clyne, who is British, though I got to know her music in the States – she was Composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Also Andrea Tarrodi, a Swedish composer who writes beautiful music. I try being in sync with who is writing right now and which pieces are going around.

DS: You mentioned two women composers. Yesterday at the rehearsal, the orchestra manager introduced you as the first woman ever to have won the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition (December 2014). I thought to myself, “Of course, being the first woman to win this is a massive accomplishment that should be acknowledged.” On the other hand, it is unfortunate and unjust that the gender issue is so prevalent in this field that you are introduced this way. Nobody introduces male conductors by saying, “He is the 40th man to win this or that award.”

EC: It’s a complicated situation. For me personally, when I work gender doesn’t play a role whatsoever. I simply disregard it and occupy myself with work alone, which is the best way, in my experience, to push people to judge you fairly as well. I was once asked if I think there should be a rule forcing orchestras to engage a minimum number of women artists. While I can understand opinions from both sides of this discussion, over time I began to disagree with such rules. We should just play fairly. The last thing I want is to get an opportunity simply because I am a woman, so that an orchestra can check a box.

DS: Yes, it’s a dangerous path, indeed.

EC: Exactly. If you stick to who you are and you do your work, then no one can find fault in that. Of course you are always dependent on people’s taste, but that’s your package, and being a woman is just a part of that. I also see it as a process and am happy to see the big changes that are happening now in that respect.

DS: I see that you’ve conducted the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Is it nice to conduct in your hometown or can it be stressful?

EC: Both. People in Hong Kong hardly know me as a musician. I left home when I was 18 years old and picked up music only years later when I settled in the States. Therefore, going on stage there is a very happy, yet stressful experience. I believe that it’s always an issue for musicians to perform at home; the expectations are naturally high and that’s exactly where you want to give your very best.

©Willeke Machiels

DS: How do you study a new score?

EC: Well there are several things I always do. I always research the composer to understand the story and context of the piece; I research when the work was conceived and what else was happening at that time. Once I get that done, I open the score. If it’s traditional repertoire for which many recordings are available, I listen to at least 10 to 15 different interpretations. Particularly with well-known pieces, there are usually so many traditions in the standard repertoire, which have almost become part of the piece by now. I want to make sure that I am aware of these traditions and at the same time be able to re-judge them and ask myself, “Why do people always slow down here?” or “Is this written in the score?” In some cases, I might realize that I see no reason to do so.

I write many notes while listening to the recordings, as well: “Abbado takes this tempo…Barenboim does it this way…” then I reopen the score and analyze it going from broad to specific. I look inside the form, the phrase structure, the harmony. I look into returning motives. After this whole preparation I need to internalize it. The body has to feel the music. I try to sing out different parts in order to confirm assumptions or ideas, because that always tells me what is natural. Eventually, I go live my life and let the piece sink in.

DS: That’s a grueling process, such a detailed procedure for learning a new piece. This leads me to the question with which we always finish our interviews at MOUTN DELA: Which is more important, knowledge or fantasy?

EC: Of course both are important. I believe that the ability to stay around for a long fruitful career accounts for an ongoing sense of imagination and creativity. But there is no question that fantasy needs to be fuelled by knowledge.

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