Rising Maestro Leaves That ‘Woman’ Thing In Stardust Of Her Ascent

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Elim Chan is scheduled to conduct three American orchestras in January and February.

PERSPECTIVE — “First woman ever” may no longer be news someday. But for now, on classical music podiums, the phrase still applies all too often.

Orchestras all over the world strive to be more inclusive, become more diverse, and represent more visibly the audiences they want to attract. As opportunities arise for conductors, the invisible but omnipresent barrier against women gradually comes down.

There’s no mystery — it just takes an opportunity.

Elim Chan, 36-year-old Hong Kong native who has become an in-demand conductor in Europe and the United States, epitomizes the future. Her thoughts after her triumph at the 2014 Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, when she found her skills suddenly in great demand? “It was only after I won that there was so much interest in me being a woman.”

The competition, sponsored by the London Symphony Orchestra and founded in 1991, is open to European Union conductors under the age of 30. Previous winners include François-Xavier Roth, Alexandre Bloch, and David Afkham. The prize comes with a one-year position as assistant conductor with the LSO, which allowed Chan to work alongside Marin Alsop, André Previn, and, most memorably, Bernard Haitink.

Since then she’s also been a Dudamel Fellow in Los Angeles and holds guest conductor positions at Sweden’s Norrlandsoperan and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. And she is currently chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, where she is both the youngest director and the first female that role.

Elim Chan is chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Rahi Rezvani)

Chan lives in Amsterdam with her husband, percussionist Dominique Vleeshouwers. She was in Switzerland, where she had just led holiday programs with the Bern Symphony Orchestra, when we spoke soon after New Year’s Day.

She comes to the United States in January to conduct concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Jan. 20–22), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Jan. 27–30), and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 5-6).

Chan collaborates with pianist Igor Levit in Boston (Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto) and Los Angeles (Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto). She also leads new works by Brian Raphael Nabors (BSO) and Elizabeth Ogonek (LA Phil). In St. Louis, she teams with percussionist Martin Grubinger for Tan Dun’s The Tears of Nature.

It’s an expansive set of repertoire crammed into three weeks, and the rest of the spring brings even more ambitious programs and prominent soloists, with concerts throughout Europe. Chan repeats engagements with Levit and Grubinger and collaborates with Gil Shaham, Martha Argerich, Sol Gabetta, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and others. She conducts multiple concerts with her home orchestra in Antwerp, as well as programs with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Orchestre National de Lyon, and the Gürzenich Orchester Köln. She also tours Germany with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The Flick competition was not the first opportunity Chan capitalized on. That came at Smith College, where Chan initially enrolled as a science major, aiming for a career in forensics.

“At my choir audition at Smith, the conductor said that I have good ears, and asked me to be her assistant,” she says. “I had already conducted — the first time was when I was 14 — so I had some experience, but not professionally. At the time I thought it was a hobby. In fact, it was the first knock on the question of what I should do.

“I kept singing — I’ve always been in choruses,” she says, “I think it’s important. Then a thunderbolt came sophomore year. We did the Verdi Requiem. That conductor asked me if I could conduct the ‘Dies Irae,’ and the moment is burned in my life. One cannot forget how it sounds, with the bass drum pounding at the gates of hell.

“I told my teachers then I needed to do music,” she says. “I had a junior year at Oxford, and then a senior year of music study. I got into the graduate program at Michigan. In my final year at Michigan, I threw myself out there. I applied to many jobs. I thought, ‘Let’s try a competition.’ I didn’t think I had to win — it was my first competition. I went to London, and I was really focused on myself.”

By the time the got to the final, Chan said, “I felt like I had already won. And just before I went onstage, one of the musicians said to me, ‘Just be you.’ And that gave me a big relief. I thought, ‘I’m enough, this is who I am. It was a Cinderella moment. Nobody knew me, and suddenly I had all these interviews. I didn’t sleep all night. I missed my flight home. I was in a trance.”

But she didn’t take on management for several months. “I had seen what happens. You can go sky high, and burn out really fast. Suddenly it can be a whirlwind, out of control. I’m the one who has to say yes, and I have to take my time.”

Elim Chan won the 2014 Donatella Flick London Symphony Orchestra Competition.

Chan brings that sensible perspective to her achievements. “I was happy to inspire a lot of women, but I don’t want my gender to take away from what I can bring to the music. I want people to see that I am a good conductor. Being a woman — I don’t want it to be a crutch.

“All the orchestras are trying to change. People of color, women, minorities. I really try to make sure the music is good. It’s too easy to put in a woman here, a person of color there, and the music becomes not important. That turns people off.”

Like other musicians on the international circuit, Chan has been limited by the pandemic The last two years have seen as many cancellations as performances, and scheduled concerts were being called off even as we spoke. The conductor’s January Antwerp concerts had just been postponed. But when we spoke, her State-side concerts were still on the schedule, and she had already negotiated the frustrating visa issues.

“Every country has their own rules,” she says. “Each province has their own rules. In Belgium, halls were closed, and the whole scene went out on the streets to protest. They retreated. But how long can they open the halls to play for 200 people?”

This soaring conductor recalls her study with Haitink as vital to her development:

“It was one of the most powerful experiences. He was teaching Wagner — Tristan. It was very difficult, keeping the long lines, and that was one of his strengths. He could make it so manageable. I was struggling with it, and he said, ‘I can’t explain,’ but he showed me. He took over, and in three minutes I started crying. He looked so calm, everything in his hands. His presence was so strong. You could feel every single emotion. Those three minutes of Wagner unfolded so naturally. He said, ‘You have to learn to let it go.’ He gave me a glimpse.

“Now that he’s gone — how to follow this? But he gave me the courage to be myself. There’s a point where I’m the one who has to make a decision. That conviction is what the other 80 (musicians) are looking for.”