From Hong Kong to Umeå: Interview with Elim Chan

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Paula Muldoon sat down with Hong Konger Elim Chan, assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and Chief Conductor designate of Sweden's NorrlandsOperan, to talk about her rise to stardom, conducting Russians in Mexico and her surprising hobby...

Your career has sky-rocketed since you won the LSO's Donatella Flick Competition. Can you talk a bit about the competition?

It was a big set of music to prepare - two rounds with the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra and the final with the LSO - spanning the symphonic repertoire from Mozart to Stravinsky.

I was particularly excited to be able to conduct Beethoven’s Egmont Overture in the final. I have always had a special relationship with Egmont - it’s the piece that confirmed me as a conductor and I identified with its heroism when I first heard it as a teenager. The first time I conducted it, as an undergraduate, I didn’t realise how tough a piece it is - I just felt great because I’d chosen a piece that resonated with me. Conducting Egmont with the LSO, one of the world’s greatest orchestras, was a dream come true!

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The Prince of Wales awarding the Donatella Flick prize to Elim Chan

You conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra on tour in Mexico recently when Valery Gergiev was unavailable. What was it like to conduct this group?

It was absolutely terrifying but so wonderful. Their sound! I asked one of the musicians how they got the string sound, and he smiled as if to say, “We know we’re special” but didn't tell me. They can play Rachmaninov with depth, resonance, shimmering sound and then switch to an edgy, in-your-face sound for Shostakovich, but always with a deep, in-the-string tone, rich and lush.

I also found out I was the first woman to conduct them ever in concert! And even though I speak no Russian, we met each other in the music, and I will have their Rachmaninov 2 in my memory for a long time.

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Credit: Clive Totman

Before your time as the LSO's assistant conductor has finished, you already have your own position in Sweden at the NorrlandsOperan. What are you most looking forward to about your new post?

To spread my wings. I've learned a lot from being in the LSO every day but I can't wait to call an orchestra my own, to invest in getting to know the musicians in a really deep way. Of course guest conducting is wonderful, but it’s difficult to make deep connections when you only spend a week with a group. I feel really connected with the orchestra in Sweden; they're curious, they want to grow and be better, and I really connected with that energy.

There's a lot of buzz these days about women conductors. How do you see the role of gender in your profession?

I look forward to the day when people introduce me as a conductor and don't need to specify my gender. When's the last time you heard someone say “here's the male conductor so-and-so”?

I embrace every part of who I am. Being a woman is part of me. I don't need to roar about it, I don't need to apologise for it.

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What new challenges are you gearing up for?

My first Shostakovich 10 in Mexico with OFUNAM in Mexico City! Working with choir and solo voices in the LSO Discovery Showcase on the 16th June. To handle so many people will be a big challenge, but I'm excited as I come from a choral conducting background and I've always sung in choirs, so I'm really looking forward to returning to my roots. Then the Lucerne Festival in August - it'll be my first time conducting Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra.

More generally, I want to develop another dimension and depth in my preparation. Now that I have a lot of stuff going on, it's hard to juggle everything, but I want to keep improving.

What is on your Spotify playlist right now?

I'm currently listening to Mozart piano concertos, but tomorrow it could be anything from established classical heroes like Michael Rabin and Sviatoslav Richter to the Norwegian DJ Kygo!

Finally, how do you relax away from music?

I go boxing!


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