Elim Chan | Photo by Willeke Machiels
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Chan says she can remember the exact moment when she realized she wanted to conduct. It was at a concert for students put on by the Hong Kong Philharmonic where they played Holst’s The Planets, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and other pieces from Disney’s Fantasia.
“And, I have to say at that time, the first conductor I ever saw in my life was a woman. So, for me, that made a huge impression. I thought what she was doing on stage was really magical. But it also gave me the sense that it’s normal that women would stand there. It’s not just a man [who can be a conductor]. So that made a big impact.”
Now in her 30s, Elim Chan is getting set to become the Chief Conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra in the fall. She’ll be the first woman to hold a Chief Conductor post in the country of Belgium. Before Antwerp, Chan was assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and a Dudamel Conducting Fellow with the LA Phil. Tonight and tomorrow night, she’s guest-conducting the LA Phil’s Lunar New Year concerts. Chan tells me growing up in Hong Kong, she has fond memories of past Lunar New Year celebrations.
“It’s like a 10-day holiday. I remember my mother and my grandmothers would take out their old recipes beforehand and get ready to make all this food for the festivities. Then, of course, you have to get ready for the food coma which lasts for 10 days. Every day is basically like Thanksgiving—I don’t know how many meals I have put in my stomach! You have to clean out the house, because for this occasion everything old, everything in the past, everything that’s not good has to go.”
For the LA Phil Lunar New Year concerts, Chan says she included some of the traditional favorites, but in true LA Phil fashion, there’s something new on the program.
“I was thinking, we have Du Yun who is a wonderful composer who won the Pulitzer Prize recently and now she has a Grammy nomination (which, wow, a big celebration!) and I thought we should bring her on board for these concerts. So, now she composed a piece which includes regional Chinese opera to come sing with the LA Phil. How awesome is that? I was just chatting with her and she was telling me that these singers have never been outside of China. So, they got their passports like a month ago maybe and now they came here to LA to share this specific kind of art form with the LA audience.”
Conductor Elim Chan’s appearance with the LA Phil comes during a run of conductors which has included Principal Guest Susanna Mälkki; Simone Young, the first woman to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic; and prominent African-American conductor Thomas Wilkins. Chan tells me the commitment to diversity and inclusion at the LA Phil is unlike any other orchestra in the world. And, she says, other orchestras should follow the LA Phil’s lead.
“I don’t think we want to be featured like a rare species in a zoo. Where you shine a light on us and say, ‘Look!’ and then after that, what happened to it? Do we not do that anymore? It should just be normal. We all have something to share with others and we all have our stories to tell. Not to have this as a ‘rare item.’ I hope that we can move beyond that. Because I think in the end we shouldn’t have boxes anymore. Music is so fluid. It’s a spectrum. It doesn’t call for boxes; it calls for dialogues.”
Brian Lauritzen and Elim Chan backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall in the Guest Conductor’s Suite | Photo by Lydia Fong
Elim Chan is the guest conductor for the LA Phil’s Lunar New Year concerts tonight and tomorrow night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program features traditional Chinese music alongside the world premiere of Thirst, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chinese composer Du Yun. Taiwanese violinist Ray Chen is the soloist for a couple of firecrackers by Maurice Ravel and Camille Saint-Saens. Learn more at laphil.com.