In December 2014, Elim Chan became the first female winner of the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, subsequently becoming Assistant Conductor of the Orchestra for one year. Since then, she's returned to guest conduct the Orchestra every season. Ahead of her concert on 27 February, we caught up with the young composer to find out more about where her career has taken her since then, what it's like to be a conductor, and the programme she has put together for the LSO.
You won the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition back in December 2014. How does it feel looking back on that five years later?
It’s unbelievable that it’s already been five years since that magical moment in my life, and I still hold such fond memories of that evening when I conducted the LSO for the first time in my life in the final round of the competition. I can only continue to count my blessings since I got to know the wonderful LSO family, who have been so supportive.
What have been some of the most exciting developments for you so far in your career?
I recently completed my first ever tour with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra – where I am Chief Conductor as of this season – in the Baltics and Russia, and I am still trying to process this very meaningful experience with my team, my partners-in-crime. I also had the very exciting and beautiful opportunity of stepping in for Franz Welser-Möst to conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in their Opening Night this season. The memory of that special evening is something I will cherish for a long time.
The tagline on your website is ‘Be the conductor of your own life’. Can you tell us more about what that means to you?
I think everyone can be like a conductor on stage: to have more courage, to dream big, and to have the will-power to decide what he or she wants in life, in each moment, and not to wait for others to tell you or let society influence or push you.
What is a typical working day like for a conductor?
Actually there is no ‘typical day’ for me yet. The days really depend on what repertoire I am preparing, which orchestra or soloists I am working with, in which country I am located or if I am in an engagement or studying. My days constantly change and you cannot call any of this a typical day in my conducting life (so far).
'I feel incredibly lucky to have had the support of the LSO … now it feels like meeting up with a good friend, and that's a wonderful feeling to have!'
Come concert day, what do you generally do in those moments before you step on stage?
I usually do a few stretching and breathing exercises to make sure my body is warmed up and tension-free, and I take some quiet moments alone, as the moment I step on stage it’s only the music that’s on my mind.
How does it feel to come back to conduct the LSO each year?
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the support of the LSO since the beginning. Every project I do has its own challenges and it’s been a lot of fun and joy tackling them together with the Orchestra. With each experience we get to know each other better – now it feels a bit like meeting up with a good friend, and that's a wonderful feeling to have!
The concert you are conducting in February is a mix of contemporary with household classical names – how does this all fit together?
The first time I listened to Ogonek’s music I was fascinated by her ability to get such vibrant colours from the orchestra, yet achieve a luminous transparency. The title of her piece, All These Lighted Things, comes from a poem that meditates on dawn, and I could not help but think about Ravel’s most magical way of depicting sunrise in Suite No 2 of Daphnis and Chloe. Ogonek’s piece consists of three dances, with an ecstatic final dance that gives a very communal feeling. That echoes Ravel’s final celebration in a bacchanalian ‘Danse générale’ in Daphnis and Chloe.
On top of this, Ogonek and Hoyle both studied at Guildhall School of Music & Drama and participated in the LSO Panufnik Scheme. Interestingly enough, both of them are fascinated by the idea and sound of bells in their respective pieces. So I am excited to hear how all the pieces communicate and shed new light on one another in this context.
'Contemporary music offers a lively process in rehearsals … we can all actively explore the possibilities together.'
Is there a difference in the way you approach music by living composers compared to the likes of Ravel and Rachmaninoff?
Not at all – music by living composers deserves the same amount of work and diligent preparation from us as the classics by giants of the past. But in a way, I do think contemporary music offers a much more lively process in rehearsals because the musicians and I can actually bring our questions and thoughts to the composer directly – we can all actively explore the possibilities together. The rehearsal process becomes much more alive, stimulating and meaningful!
Are there any projects you have coming up that you are particularly excited about?
This is probably the hardest question to answer. My diary is packed with engagements I’m very excited about. I cannot reveal too much but for this season I’d say highlights are my upcoming debuts with the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, the Juilliard Orchestra in New York and the Konzerthausorchester in Berlin. I will also be working with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which I’m very much looking forward to. This engagement is particularly special to me! Young musicians carry this kind of catching energy which brings new possibilities to explore the music. It’s contagious and I am thrilled to work with them for the very first time. Actually, my whole season is a highlight I’m getting really excited about.
What would you say to any young aspiring conductors out there?
Life is both long and short – embrace the opportunities and unknown, but also take the time to study well. Learn to say no sooner rather than later, as opportunities will come back if they are meant to be. And, in the end, no one knows you better than yourself, so always be in touch with who you are and listen to your gut – it’s often right!
Outside of conducting, you say you’re a major foodie – what’s your go-to comfort food?
Asian food is always my go-to comfort food. Suan cai yu (Sichuan hot and sour fish soup with pickled mustard greens) is my go-to dish, especially on wintry days.
To finish with, if you had 30 seconds to tell someone why they should come to this concert, what would you say?
It will be an evening with the one and only LSO, channelling the unexpected and thought-provoking dialogues between two famous old masters, Ravel and Rachmaninoff, and two exciting new voices, Hoyle and Ogonek. Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček makes his debut with the LSO with his signature reading of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto that won him the Gold medal in the 2016 Queen Elizabeth Piano Competition.
Elim Chan conducts the LSO on Thursday 27 February, in a programme featuring Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto and Suite No 2 from Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, alongside the world premiere of James Hoyle's Thymiaterion and the European premiere of Elizabeth Ogonek's All These Lighted Things. Click here for more information or to book tickets.