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Classical music

Conductor Elim Chan thrilled to be making hometown debut with HK Phil

29-year-old hopes children’s concerts tonight and tomorrow with city orchestra will earn her a return to the Philharmonic rostrum, and brushes aside fuss about its alleged lack of support for local musicians like her

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 11:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 11:14am

Hong Kong conductor Elim Chan is riding a wave of success. Winning the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition in December 2014 earned Chan a year-long stint as assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. This week she is back home to conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic in a children’s programme called “Harry Wong’s Christmas”.

The concerts on December 23 and 24 feature magician Harry Wong as presenter, and the music includes the “Troika” from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, arrangements of Christmas music and sing-along carols.

In June 2015 arts professionals launched a petition expressing “great concern over the … orchestra’s ... near-total exclusion of Hong Kong talent from its long-term organisational vision”. The orchestra’s programming of Chan was cited as an example of this, and Chan said at the time that her heart “sank” when she saw Philharmonic musical director Jaap van Zweden’s assistant at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra getting a full regular concert with her hometown orchestra while she was assigned a fun concert with a magician. “That’s why Hong Kong will lose many artists of its own if things keep going like that,” Chan said. Orchestra managers defended their programming of Chan and van Zweden said he would see to it that she “will be featured much better ... next time”.

This week, in an interview, the 29-year-old waved aside the fuss and talked instead about how exhilarated she is to be working with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

With her glossy hair in a ponytail after a rehearsal, she said: “It’s really exciting because this is a homecoming. When I studied conducting, I hoped that one day I would come back, but it was quite far away until the competition happened and London happened. The Hong Kong Philharmonic came to contact me and I was very grateful.”

Although her career is now international, with a London-based manager and concerts booked in France and Sweden next year, it had a very local beginning. Her first taste of classical music was in fact through the Hong Kong Philharmonic. She said: “I went with my primary school to those educational concerts, back in the day when Yip Wing-sie [conductor of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta] conducted. So that’s how I learned about [Stravinsky’s] Rite of Spring, ‘Mars’ [from Holst’s] Planets, from those excerpts. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’”

Deciding that music was her destiny, she went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Michigan in the United States. With no expectations, she entered the Donatella Flick conducting competition and was selected to go to London.

After making it to the final round she found herself conducting Ravel’s Scheherazade with the London Symphony Orchestra. “They are actually very kind people. I was very moved and surprised too. Of course I was scared to death. It was the first time I had done Scheherazade. During the break, they were like, ‘We’re the LSO. Don’t worry about us. We’re here to play for you. Stop all these nerves. Don’t try to impress us, just [be yourself].’”

Being a guest conductor is like a speed date. You have a short amount of time and you try to make things happen
Elim Chan

As a conductor, she is a team player who helps performers play their best. “It’s really uncomfortable for me to get all the credit. Being a leader is always, constantly, putting myself in the players’ shoes. In the end it’s about me serving them, instead of ‘making me feel awesome’.

“It’s very different from back in the day with huge conductors from Toscanini to Karajan. With the society we have now, it’s a lot more about collaboration. I think the product that comes out from this sense is much more beautiful. When the orchestra knows that you trust them, they actually step it up.”

Looking forward, she hopes to return to conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic again in the future. “I’d be very happy if I could come back. It depends on if the orchestra likes me.”

Comparing being principal conductor to being married to an orchestra, she said: “You can be very honest and work things out over time. But being a guest conductor is like a speed date. You have a short amount of time and you try to make things happen.”