Interview: Elim Chan

Elim Chan won the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition in December 2014. She spoke to Felicity Hindle about being a young conductor, working with the LSO and her memories of the competition.

[This article has been updated since it was first published]

How did it feel standing on the podium and conducting in the final?

It was absolutely unbelievable – I have always thought that LSO is just in the CD! So to have passed the first two rounds and have gotten to the final was a huge honour. It was a mix of excitement and fear, and being in awe. I actually get to be with them. I remember for the first for a few seconds I couldn't even think because of the sound that was coming out, it was overwhelming in a very good sense. The LSO was one of the few professional orchestras that I have ever conducted, so I thought: 'what am I going to say to them? I'm going to rehearse them!' The fact that they're such great musicians really inspired me; I can really be in touch with what I have, and trust them at the same time because they're so sensitive. I remember comparing LSO with a really good car, you do a little move and it just does what you want.


How did it feel when they announced you as the winner?

I forgot it was a competition because I was really grateful and it was such an honour to be there. It didn't matter whether I won or not – having that opportunity was already a huge reward and I really enjoyed the concert. When my name was announced I thought: 'I was never the lucky one!' I had this organic and overwhelming sense of peace because I had done my best. It was a strange combination of 'wow, I actually won', to 'I've worked so hard for a long long time, and I am delighted and glad that things are happening'. I was so happy it was unbelievable. I was sincerely thanking the orchestra in my heart; they taught me, they carried me through. I hadn't conducted any of those pieces before except Beethoven's Egmont Overture. I needed their help too. In the end, it was not just me, it was a partnership.

How does it feel to be the first woman to have won the competition?

'It’s part of who I am as a woman, but it’s not all of who I am.'

When I won this wasn't something that came into my mind, but of course it's history and it's a huge honour; I glad that, as a woman, I can say that. I got a lot of congratulations from female conductors all over the world. The gender issue is very complex; it's great to say that I'm valued as the same as my male colleagues, but at the same time I want to take the next step and go beyond 'because she's a woman', or 'because she's Asian'. I want to be viewed and respected as the whole package of what I have and what I can bring to the podium. It's part of who I am as a woman, but it's not all of who I am.

What made you want to become a conductor?

My first thought of wanting to be a conductor came when I went to my first classical concert. I was in primary school and it was an educational concert with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. The conductor explained the pieces, and the music was fascinating: Holst's The Planets and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. I was fascinated by the conductor because everything happened when they started waving their hands; I thought it was magic. Everyone listened and followed them. I thought: 'I want to be like that person'.

This thought has been in my head for a long time, it's always been there. I didn't actually study music for a while, I thought maybe I should be a doctor or something else, but I returned to music in the end for grad school. I realised that being a conductor is really difficult, but I thought 'I really just have to'. I wouldn't say it's a calling, but in a way it is because that thought has been there for so long.

'I wouldn’t say it’s a calling, but in a way it is because that thought has been there for so long.'

I really enjoy being around and working with people, and being a conductor, I have to find a way to bring everyone together and make music with one another. In the end, I don't make the sound and it is not about me; I facilitate the music-making process and inspire the musicians to perform at their best

The first legitimate concert that I conducted was with my college orchestra in the US, playing Beethoven's Egmont Overture, so that piece has a special place in my heart. I have loved and felt deeply about this Overture ever since I first listened to it, and it is incredible how it has always marked the important occasions in my conducting journey so far.

What are your hobbies outside of conducting?

I love lots of different kinds of music and I listen to a whole load of things: jazz, pop, etc. I love travelling, which is great as a conductor because you get to travel a lot! So it's win-win. I enjoy cooking when I have the time; it's something a little creative, but you can practise it in a different way. I also enjoy taking walks and reading; I really treasure when I have the time to read.

Chan 600600

If you weren’t a conductor, what do you think you’d be?

It's interesting because when you ask a lot of musicians this question they think they can't do anything else except for music. For a long time I had two dreams – one was to be a musician/conductor, and the other was to be a detective working in forensics. I just love finding out things and looking deeper to find out the truth about what happened. As a detective you have to look at a crime scene and try to work out what happened; I think that's similar to being a conductor. Most of the time when you're looking at a score you can't talk to the composer, so you have to find out what it means, how to bring out the sound, and to look at traces, hints and history. You have to analyse what’s going on and recreate it.

Who is your role model conductor?

Carlos Kleiber has always been my number one: it's his imagination and the way he was on the podium – there's something about it that's so powerful and unique, and it worked beautifully! No one can copy him, so that's really inspiring.

Claudio Abbado – one thing that I heard over and over again from the musicians that worked with him is that he was so humble; that's a quality that brings people together to play for him. He was a super musician; he brought out an amazing sound.

I have two others, who are living. Xian Zhang, who was on the jury in the competition: she's a female conductor who, since the competition, has been very helpful to my career and has given me lots of advice. She is very serious about her work and also has a really good relationship with LSO; she's someone that I would aspire to.

Bernard Haitink – again he possesses a very special quality when he works with the orchestra, you can really feel that he's open and humble; he respects the orchestra and they respect him. And his conducting is amazing as he can literally show everything in his gestures, yet he is also so calm and grounded, maintaining an incredible sense of direction and pacing.

'It's not about the ego or the career, it's about the art.'

For a young conductor, it's so easy for us to think 'I have to be fast, I need to have charisma, I need to do this and that.' It's so easy to make it all about me, because we want to get attention and opportunities and as many things happen as possible. The people that I've talked about so far, when I've watched them work, the music took over. When I went to performances with Haitink there were moments that I forgot he was there - it's all about the music and the orchestra. At the end of the work, no one dares to clap for at least 30 seconds, because everyone's in a different place. That's something that I feel really inspired by: I need to remember that it's not about the ego or the career, it's about the art.

Are there any pieces that it would be your dream to conduct?

That's hard because there are so many great pieces. I know that there are some pieces that I'm ready to do right now, but there are others that will come further down the road when I have silver hair! Right now, I'd love to do Tchaikovsky symphonies 4, 5 or 6 with a really great orchestra. The whole of Scheherazade would be great too – I only got to do the inner movements in the competition; I really care about telling a story in music, and it would be wonderful to go through the while piece. Beethoven symphonies too – I love his Seventh symphony... but then I can't push away Brahms either! I'd love to do some Bartók and Stravinsky, e.g. Rite of Spring, further down the line.

What is your favourite instrument in the orchestra and why?

I have to say cello – I played it for a while. It just pulls my heartstrings when you hear a cello playing beautifully; Brahms gave them a lot of beautiful, singing themes. I also love that cello takes care of the bassline with the bass, they're very important – they drive and inform how the music is and where it's going. I'd say I have an affinity with the cello.

Another instrument I have fallen in love with over the years is the clarinet. I find it very close to the human voice. It has a ton of beautiful themes, and the sound has a lot of different colours to it.

How would you describe the orchestra’s sound and personality, and what have you enjoyed most about being Assistant Conductor so far?

This is only my second week, and it's been fascinating. The first day was when the Orchestra had just got back from tour with Daniel Harding and Janine Jansen. I saw the last concert at the Barbican, and then I started coming to rehearsals with Marin Alsop, André Previn and now Haitink.

The LSO is a fantastic orchestra, but what makes it really great – and this is something I experienced back in the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition – is that the musicians are actually really friendly and kind. A few of the players came up to me during the break between rehearsal and performance; they talked to me and helped me out. That quality was really surprising, I thought because they were a professional orchestra they wouldn't be like that. I was so moved.

The sound is sweet and beautiful; there's something very human about the orchestra that I already sensed in December and sensed again when I came back to observe some rehearsals recently. I was in tears at the concert with André Previn; seeing the process from rehearsal to concert, with the amount of love and respect coming from the orchestra for him, was overwhelming. The orchestra really came together and helped him out (he's very old!), and they played their best for him. I found it so beautiful, unique and rare. It connects back to this human quality, that kindness.

'They come to make excellent music, but they are willing to walk an extra mile.'

The work schedule is crazy... back to back concerts, one programme after another, with studio recordings too! The musicians really care about the music and their work. They come to make excellent music, but they are willing to walk an extra mile in the performance because they really respect the conductor and the audience.

Each conductor changes the sound of the LSO; and there's something great about the orchestra, the way they're so sensitive. It's interesting for me to see that you can really feel what the conductor is doing; the sound reflects what the conductor is thinking – Haitink makes a very different sound to Previn, but both are perfect in their respective ways.

DFCC Chan 500 333 

What do you think makes a great conductor, and what advice would you offer to aspiring conductors?

To me a good conductor has to be a great musician; you have to know your music inside and out. You have to be confident and very comfortable with who you are, and be grounded. With absolute knowledge and authority of the score and experience with the orchestra, you also need to know you strengths and weaknesses, and be comfortable with that. Then you can bring it all back to go on the podium – you know what's important to the music. I'm very young and still trying to figure this out, but that's why I respect certain conductors: it's always about the art; it's always about the music. They get out of the way and put the music at the forefront.

'It's always about the art; it's always about the music.'

You have to really make time to study, but also to take time for yourself to let things assimilate. It's really important to take care of yourself because it's so easy to burn out or find that you don't have time to prepare. I'm very grateful for this year with the LSO; I can be around one of the world's best orchestras and get to know a lot of music. You have to take care of your life and know what's important and what's not; once you've sorted that priority things become pretty clear.