Elim Chan, Assistant Conductor of the LSO and soon-to-be Chief Conductor of NorrlandsOperan, sat down with Liam Hennebry to discuss the past year, conducting, what it's like to work with the LSO and Peacemakers, the forthcoming LSO Discovery Showcase on 16 June.
We’re sat here in the Barbican Centre, a monument to noble concrete. What’s it like to play here? Do you like the sound of the space?
I really like the Barbican. I will always be reminded of the greatness of this place every time I go into the building and see 'LSO'.
For me it’s a privilege to come in every day to rehearsals and hear the unmistakable sound of the LSO. Of course, the Barbican has its flaws in acoustic, but I think a hall and an orchestra have a love and hate relationship. You know how to get a good sound out of it and you know where the limit is. Ever since the Donatella Flick Competition final, when I first conducted on that stage, every time it’s an absolute thrill.
Imagine I don’t know a lot about classical music. How would you describe to me what a conductor does?
It’s an interesting question, and I get a lot of people asking the same question. In America when I say I’m a conductor people say ‘oh you work in the station?’ – like a train conductor!
Well the job of a conductor is fascinating. In the end I think as a conductor, you unify everyone’s point of view. You bring everyone to an agreement, a middle ground, where things can meet. That’s what I believe and here at the LSO, that’s what I find. When you have a really great conductor like Bernard Haitink or Simon Rattle on stage, you almost forget that they’re there, but then something magical happens. They exude a certain energy, a certain presence, which brings each of these 80 musicians, who are all great soloists on their own, together to follow one vision. I think that’s the most sublime part of being a conductor – that you unify people.
What’s the LSO like to conduct? Is it different to other orchestras you’ve had the chance to work with?
'Having a great orchestra like the LSO in front of you is like driving a Ferrari ... The Orchestra can really feel what your intention is. They can smell it.'
Nothing is like the LSO. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a part of this orchestra. The LSO is such a great combination of the best technique and skills, and at the same time great musicianship. You have the best of everything coming together. Having a great orchestra like the LSO in front of you is like driving a Ferrari! You do a little thing and then the car just goes. The other reason the LSO is so amazing is that every conductor gets a different sound out of them. The Orchestra can really feel what your intention is. They can smell it. But at the same time, while they are so good, they are a kind orchestra. The musicians are good people, they are very personable and they want to help you. They want to give their best performance to the audience. For me, and for the audience too, that’s something very special.
Which conductors have influenced you the most? Is there something about their style or technique that speaks to you?
I always talk about Bernard Haitink. I’m amazed when I watch him work because he doesn’t need to say a lot. He has everything in his hands and the way he conducts. His intention and his presence make it very clear about what he wants. It’s quite mysterious. With him, doing a Bruckner Symphony, everything just makes sense. Leaving his performance, you will feel humbled. Of course, that presence, that intention, only comes with complete knowledge of the music. He commands so much respect from the musicians. Those are things that you have to build over years and years and for me that’s very inspiring.
Another person would be Simon Rattle. He gets a completely different result because he has so much energy, I don’t know how that man does it. It’s interesting because with Simon every piece feels new, even though he may have done it many times before. As a young conductor I always think ‘What can I do with these pieces that so many people have done before and how can I do them better?’ But Simon always finds something that you’ve never thought about or heard before. In the end, you gain another level of understanding and love for the piece. Plus his energy is just impressive!
The last person I would mention is Antonio Pappano. Recently I’ve been working quite a lot with him. We had a conversation about music and he said that the ego can be very destructive to music-making and that serving the music and being humble will go a long way in the end. His humility and words are such a good reminder for me as a young conductor because as a starter in this industry, it is easy to fall into the danger of merely impressing others, rather than focusing on the work at hand. I think that’s why Pappano's recent Elgar performance was so unbelievable. It was moving, it was human, and I think people left the concert hall feeling transformed. It reminds me that there’s so much more to learn.
Talk us through the day of a big concert, what do you do to prepare? Do you have any rituals before going on stage?
The day of a big concert depends on whether the general rehearsal is on the day of the performance. If it is, you really have to save your energy. A great musician in Mariinsky told me that an orchestra can only bloom once – it’s like a flower, so you want to save that for the performance. Of course, during the rehearsal you want to hear everything so you know that in the concert it’ll be good, but you have to trust that the orchestra will come through. Trusting the orchestra is an important part of being a conductor.
I’ll usually take quite an easy general rehearsal and then after that, I’ll have a nice lunch. Maybe I’ll go through a few tricky places in my head so I know how to feel in certain transitions and moments. Then perhaps I’ll take a walk, be quiet. The silence is really important. A little secret that I have but I don’t recommend is that I don’t tend to eat a lot before the concert. Maybe I’ll have some fruit – bananas always help.
What do you do outside of classical music? What music do you like, do you have any hobbies?
I do like a lot of different music other than classical music. I like listening to jazz, pop, alternative, electronic music. I like to increase my understanding of the different facets of sounds and what different people are doing and thinking. I’m in touch with publishers like Boosey & Hawkes and Schott. I have friends working there and I get them to send me new contemporary music so I know what people are doing and what new ideas are out there.
Other than music I love boxing! I started almost a year ago now after I moved to London. I started because as a conductor you need to take care of your body. Having strength and flexibility in your muscles is very important, otherwise if you’re lazy all day and then you have to get up and conduct three hours of really intense music, your body will not be able to handle it.
Tell us a little bit about the LSO Discovery Showcase, Peacemakers, that you are conducting on 16 June. What are you particularly excited about?
'When we were rehearsing, they inspired me so much because they love singing and it makes me remember why music is so important'
First of all I’m really happy to be involved in this showcase. Last year’s showcase was the first thing I was engaged in when I started with the LSO. It almost feels like a homecoming to do this year’s. I’m very excited because I’m working with the LSO Community Choir. Even though I’ve sung in choirs since I was six, a part of me was really nervous about that! Having spent so much time in orchestras, I was quite apprehensive. But in the end it’s been amazing. I stepped in to a rehearsal last week with the choir and they are wonderful! It was one of the most inspiring and fun nights I’ve had. The choir is very, very good and committed. When we were rehearsing, they inspired me so much because they love singing and it makes me remember why music is so important. It sounds clichéd but it’s so true. I can’t wait to have them on stage with the LSO. The choir is what’s going to be really special in the showcase.
You’ve been working with the LSO for over a year now. Having seen many conductors and concerts in action, what are your highlights from an audience perspective?
I have to say one of them is definitely the BMW LSO Open Air Classics Concert. I’m a little biased because that’s the first LSO project that I went to when I moved to London, and I wouldn’t have believed it without seeing it. In Trafalgar Square, the LSO gave a free concert to all these people and everyone actually listened. It was Shostakovich’s First Symphony and it happened again this year with Tchaikovsky. It’s an unbelievable concert. I remember I brought my sister this year and she had never heard a Tchaikovsky symphony ever in her life and she, like many people, had this idea that going to a concert would be stuffy. But she was blown away. You can learn about Tchaikovsky; you can participate; do some clapping with [presenter] Paul Rissmann! I really like that, I like the effort that LSO makes to engage people, so that’s definitely one of the highlights.
Another one that I was really thrilled by was Simon Rattle’s project of the Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande. When I saw what Peter Sellars had done with the stage and all the crazy lighting, I was in awe. I could not have imagined that you could do something like that in the Barbican. I’m so excited that Simon is going to bring more projects like that to the Barbican. I’m really looking forward to the Ligeti in January.
Of course from the 17/18 season you’ll be moving to Sweden to join the NorrlandsOperan. What exiting things have you planned? And how does that feel?
Unbelievable. I’m very, very grateful and happy to have a position as the chief conductor of an orchestra that does both symphonic concerts and opera. It’s a great opportunity for me to get my hands on conducting operas. I’m beyond delighted.
To build up an orchestra will be quite a challenge, because it’s not like the LSO where you have a conductor come in for three days. That’s almost like a speed date. You come in, you get the chemistry, boom boom boom and you’re done. It’s quite different to spend time with an orchestra for weeks after weeks and build something permanent. There will be some things you need to break, some old bricks you need to take out and replace with new ones. To do that oftentimes I think it helps to go back to the standard repertoire; Mozart, Beethoven, those are the works that are capable to submerge an orchestra in pure musical expression and care of sound. I’ll love that because I’ll get to do all these jewels from the repertoire and to experiment with them. Plus of course, it’s Sweden. They have a lot of good resources and support for music so I’m very happy.
Where can people find out more about you?
Also I’m really happy to talk to audiences in the intervals – I really enjoy talking to people! So meet me at one of the LSO concerts or find me on social media.
TIPPETT Five Spirituals from A Child of Our Time
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Dirge for Two Veterans from Dona nobis pacem
KARL JENKINS Healing Light – A Celtic Prayer from The Peacemakers
HOLST Jupiter from The Planets
HOWARD MOODY Vaishnava* (world premiere, LSO Discovery commission)
Elim Chan conductor
Howard Moody conductor*
Francesca Chiejina soprano
Bianca Andrew mezzo-soprano
Eduard Mas Bacardit tenor
Joan Miquel Muñoz Socias bass
LSO On Track Next Generation*
LSO Community Choir
Orchestral Artistry students from the Guildhall School