Elim Chan on becoming a conductor: ‘I wanted to make magic’

17th November 2017 | By: Elim Chan
Back to News

Two years ago, Elim Chan won the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition. Ahead of tonight’s final, she reflects on what her victory has brought her, and why she doesn’t want her gender to define her

Outside my window of my apartment in Los Angeles is the spectacular Walt Disney Hall. I’m soon to be making my debut there with the wonderful Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducting them in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. And I can’t help thinking back over the last two years and of the roller-coaster ride my life has been since winning the Flick-LSO conducting competition, and of further back, to my earliest thoughts of wanting to be a conductor.

The seed was planted when I first went to a classical concert in Hong Kong, where I grew up. I was in primary school and was taken to an educational concert with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. The conductor explained we were going to hear Holst’s Planets and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and talked briefly about the works. I was fascinated by this figure – everything happened when he started waving his hands. It seemed to me like magic. Just like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia, everyone was under his spell and followed his magic wand. I thought: “I want to make magic like that person.”

I learned to play piano and cello, and singing was an integral part of my childhood. But I didn’t pursue music professionally right away when I went to university in the US. For a long time I had two dreams – one was to be a conductor, and the other was to be a forensic detective. I love the process of looking deeper to uncover the truth about something. As a detective you have to examine a crime scene and try to work out what happened: that feels in many ways similar to being a conductor. Most of the time when you’re working on a score you can’t talk to the composer so you have to figure out for yourself what he or she meant, you have to make your own road map, and to look at traces, hints and history to piece together an understanding of the work in front of you.

Conducting was always something I dreamed of doing, but for a while I ignored my dreams. Many people told me in both loud and soft ways that it is a very difficult and lonely path, especially for a petite, young woman, and for a while I was too fearful to trust my gut feeling that I could and should be a conductor. I see my role as a conduit for the music and people, and there isn’t a better feeling of satisfaction when I can facilitate the music-making process, inspire the musicians to perform at their best and get the audience to experience something meaningful. Music seems to me a kind of magic – without words it effectively and unmistakably communicates to us all about beauty, love, nature, mankind, power, terror, wrath, nostalgia, struggle, despair, hope … Sometimes I envisage myself as a prism in which music and the musicians are like the ray of white light that goes through one end of me, and I refract and transmit all that energy to the audience through a colourful and vivid performance.

Source: The Guardian

Finding myself in the final, facing the orchestra was terrifying … I wanted to impress them, but didn't know what to say

Winning the Donatella Flick LSO conducting competition has meant that I got to spend almost every day with the London Symphony Orchestra as their assistant conductor for the 2015-16 season. It’s a fantastic orchestra, but what makes it so really special is how genuinely friendly and kind the musicians are. Finding myself, two years, ago, in the competition’s final round and faced for the first time with the actual orchestra was an amazing and terrifying moment. I wanted to impress them, but I also didn’t know what to say to them! Then one of the musicians came up and told me simply to trust the orchestra, that they were there to make music and help me. Those words of encouragement released me from all my fears and allowed me to be myself and enjoy every minute with the orchestra.

Winning the competition and working with the LSO has given me so many opportunities to learn and grow professionally, to forge relationships and develop further opportunities and projects from these new relationships. Over this two years, I’ve assisted in daily rehearsals, conducted the LSO in concert at the Barbican,premiered works by young composers and worked with hundreds of children and young people in education concerts. Sir Antonio Pappano, who has a close relationship with LSO, and who I have assisted on several occasions, gave me some advice that I’ve found very helpful. He told me that the ego can be very destructive to music-making, that serving the music and being humble will go a long way. Now, as I move on, I am building new relationships with other orchestras that I guest conduct, and I am beyond delighted to have been appointed chief conductor of the NorrlandsOperan in Umeå, Sweden, where I will be conducting both symphonic concerts and opera. Much as I also enjoy guest-conducting, I am looking forward to the challenge of building up an orchestra, spending quality time with musicians to create something permanent.

Conducting is a fascinating career. Most people think of it as one full of glamour, money and glory. Maybe that’s true for a very few who have reached the very top of the profession, but to get there takes relentless hard work, discipline, confidence and persistence, in addition to God-given charisma and innate musicality. As a conductor, I also have to find a way to bring everyone together and make music with one another. I don’t make the sound; I facilitate the music-making process and inspire the musicians to perform at their best.

I don’t make the sound; I facilitate the music-making process and inspire the musicians to perform at their best.

My core priorities have always been and will always be the music and the audience, and I think audiences over the past two years have come to see me simply as Elim, rather than under the labels “Asian” or “female conductor”. When I won in 2014, being the first female winner in the competition’s history wasn’t something that came into my mind straight away. But, of course, lots of press coverage focused on my gender. Undoubtedly it’s a huge honour, and I am glad that I can say that I have broken a glass ceiling. I’m only where I am today because of such inspirational women – conductors such as Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta and Susanna Mälkki who have forged their way into the male-dominated business and made it easier for me and my colleagues today.

The gender issue is complex, and the classical music world has come a long way – I am thrilled to be riding on a trend of promoting and celebrating female artists in these recent years. Yet in the midst of this, I have felt there to be at times an imbalance of focus on my gender over my whole identity as a musician. I do not want to be given any special treatment because I am a woman. I do not want my gender, my femininity, to become a crutch of my own. It’s important that we all keep asking questions and challenging the status quo. I am proud of being a woman conductor, but I want to take the next step and go beyond any tags and be seen and valued as the same as my male colleagues.

Being a woman is an essential part of who I am, but it’s not all of who I am and all that has shaped me. Every male and female artist has a unique story to tell, and I want mine to be heard and respected as I offer the whole package of what I have and what I can bring to the podium.