Interview: Elim Chan

First published in The Herald on 15 February, 2017

Neemi Jarvi has withdrawn from conducting his own 80th birthday concerts with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra this week, having been instructed by doctors to keep weight off a bad knee. His replacement is Elim Chan: a 30-year-old rising star from Hong Kong who came to international attention two years ago as the first woman to win the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition and was introduced to Scottish audiences two weeks ago when she conducted the RSNO in Kirkcaldy and Musselburgh.

That she’s been invited back quite so soon says much about the mutual glow around those performances. “I was speaking to Maya [Iwabuchi, RSNO leader] after the concerts,” Chan tells from a hotel room in Luxembourg. “She was saying how she already wanted more, and I said, ‘you know what? So do I!’ It was a beautiful atmosphere.” Chan was hardly going to disclose that she’d hated the experience of working with the RSNO, but she insists that the visit had a rare chemistry. The programme helped, she says: Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Italian Symphony, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Serge Koussevitzsky’s rarely performed Concerto for Double Bass featuring the RSNO’s principal bass Ana Cordova.

“That set of pieces allowed us to explore a lot of colours,” she says. “In rehearsals I went straight into working in close-up detail and the musicians were really listening to each other. They were super attentive. Actually, they were so quiet I really couldn’t tell if they liked me — I had to ask Maya, and she assured me, ‘we like you! We’re just focusing on what you’re saying!’ The result was something more approaching chamber music than normal orchestral mentality. We were working like a team. They were owning the music, I wasn’t dragging them.”

A clue to that might be the piece of advice given to Chan by her mentor Antonio Pappano. “The ego can be very destructive to music-making,” he told her. “Serving the music and being humble will go a long way.” Now she acknowledges the paradox in the notion of an egoless conductor. “Every time I go on stage I think about it,” she admits. “As a conductor you have to be brave, and there has to be something inside you that makes you want to lead. But that authority, that fire, should not come from having a big ego.”

“In the end I’m not the one making any sounds. I’m like a football coach — essential, but not the one playing the match. The question is how well I can empower and enable the musicians.” She returns to the moment she shared with Maya Iwabuchi after the first round of RSNO concerts. “I didn’t go away thinking, ‘that gesture I made was so cool’ or ‘that downbeat was awesome’. It was the musicians who made it all happen.”

Chan speaks in precise English, an Americanised Hong Kong accent evidence of years spent training at universities in the US. As a girl she played piano, cello and sang, all the while dreaming of being a conductor, but she didn’t pursue music professionally right away. “I was scared,” she says. “There were so many voices telling me how lonely a job it is, how you can’t have a family. How the travel effects your health, your personal life. You love music, but do you love it enough?”

It was only on stage during the finals of the Flick competition, standing in front of the London Symphony Orchestra conducting Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, that Chan finally confronted those voices. “The orchestra was just so good — it was as though they were collectively asking me the question: who are you? There was no time or space to be scared any more.”

Part of her prize was to become LSO assistant conductor for the 2015-16 season, and that proved a substantial springboard. She has since been appointed chief conductor of the NorrlandsOperan in Umeå, Sweden, starting this autumn. For her initial season she has already planned a focus on female composers. “We’re not shouting about it,” she says. “We’re just programming some really good pieces that happen to have been written by women.”

The classical music world is “in transition,” she says. “I’m really happy to be riding a wave of enthusiasm for female artists,” but her aim is to be viewed simply as Elim rather than as labels like ‘Asian’ or ‘female conductor’. “I have felt there to be at times an imbalance of focus on my gender over my whole identity as a musician,” she wrote a year ago. “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.”

And so the feedback she got from RSNO musicians after that first round of concerts was especially welcome. “I was told that they didn’t see me as a man or a woman. Just as a musician.” For her return concerts this week she has opted to conduct Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony — a piece that has already marked key moments of her career, including performances at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Auspicious choice? There might yet be a silver lining to Jarvi’s bad knee.

Elim Chan conducts the RSNO at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on Friday, and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday