Catching up with conductor Elim Chan

Elim Chan. Photo: Willeke Michaels

Elim Chan is considered a rising star of the baton. She is currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and will soon take over the podium as Chief Conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra. She is the first female winner of the prestigious Donatella Flick Conducting Competition. And she is an alumna of the NAC Summer Music Institute in 2012 where she worked with Pinchas Zukerman. Last week she led NACO in a concert that featured a new work by the Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich written for Amanda Forsyth. She also took some time answer questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Ms. Chan, as a child in Hong Kong you were very musical, playing the cello and singing in choirs. Was the family home encouraging of music?

A. Although my parents are not musical, they were happy about me practicing music. I have a younger sister and she plays some oboe, and my younger brother plays violin, but they both aren’t professional musicians now. 

Q. Your original career path was medicine. Why did you want to do that? Why in the U.S.?

A. It was not really medicine, but I was interested in the work of forensics and psychology. I have always been fascinated by detective and crime stories (I’m a big fan of CSI, Sherlock Holmes). And the U.S. has the top training programs for these fields.

Q. You switched direction in your second year at Smith College and completed a music degree. What caused the change of heart?

A. I started conducting the girls choir at my high school when I was 14, and while it felt natural to me, I never thought that would become my career. When I started at Smith College, I joined the university chorus as I love singing in choir, and the conductor asked me to be the assistant conductor and invited me to conduct a piece in a concert. I started to ponder the idea to go into music, but the turning point came during my second year when the conductor has asked me to conduct a bit of Verdi’s Requiem in the rehearsal with full chorus and orchestra. That experience shook me deeply and I knew I had to pursue conducting from then on.

Q. What is the appeal of conducting for you?  

A. I love music and working with people, and being a conductor perfectly brings these two things together. And it’s a constantly humbling job to be a conductor.

Q. Do you still play the cello, still sing?

A. I don’t play cello anymore, but I still sing and use the piano to learn scores. 

Q. How does one win the Donatello Flick LSO Conducting Competition? 

A. Looking back I don’t think I was trying to win the competition. By the time I got into the final round, I was just focusing on making music and doing the best I could when I was on stage with the LSO. The 20 shortlisted candidates were required to go through three rounds covering classical, romantic and contemporary repertoire, and we needed to rehearse the ensemble during the time slot. 

Q. Part of the win was a stint with the London Symphony, a great opportunity. What did you do in your year there?

A. I became the assistant conductor of the LSO, and I got to cover for and assist all the conductors who were coming through that season including Simon Rattle, Valery Gergiev, Sir Antonio Pappano, Bernard Haitink. Also I got to plan and conduct LSO’s schools concerts and family concerts, and I was also involved in new music concerts as well. 

Q. There aren’t many female conductors who are music directors of major orchestras such as the Antwerp Symphony. Why do you think that is? 

A. I think it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t happen only to music, but in many other fields as well where female leaders are still uncommon. However this is gradually changing as nowadays there are more female conductors, and the music world is opening the opportunities up as my colleagues and I continue to shatter various glass ceilings.  

Q. In Ottawa you conducted two pieces by Mendelssohn. Are they favourites of yours?

A. Yes they are two favourite pieces of mine, especially the Hebrides overture, which is a piece I have fond memories of when I was playing the cello in youth orchestra. And the Italian symphony has such youth, vitality, joy and elegance at the same time. 

Q. You also conducted a performance of a new work written for and featuring Amanda Forsyth on cello. How do you work with a soloist to bring out the best in her performance and the orchestra’s?

A. I always meet with the soloist to get to know him or her a little bit and learn about his or her vision on the music before we rehearse with the orchestra. In this case as the concerto was written for Amanda Forsyth, I was keen to honour Amanda’s interpretation to offer the best support she needed.  

Q. What do you remember of your time in the Conductors Program at the NAC Summer Music Institute where you worked with Pinchas Zukerman and led the NACO in concert.

A. NACO was the first professional orchestra I ever conducted in my life, and I remember the amazing playing and sound from the orchestra when I conducted the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth symphony. Also Pinchas’s riveting passion for the music has made such a strong impression in me.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.