Conductor Elim Chan achieves dream of working with a 'Ferrari' orchestra

Hong Kong musician Elim Chan realises ambition to work with a top orchestra on her way to winning a prestigious competition in London

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 January, 2015, 2:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 January, 2015, 12:00pm

"Someday I will conduct this again but with a real Ferrari," Elim Chan said to herself as she led the Smith College orchestra in the United States through a performance of Beethoven's Egmont Overture.

Last month, the 28-year-old Hong Kong conductor saw her dream come true when she conducted that very work to kick off the final of the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition - a competition she was to win.

"LSO [London Symphony Orchestra] is really a Ferrari, taking off on the slightest cue," she said.

Chan had come a long way to be one of the three finalists at the prestigious international competition. Shortlisted from 225 applicants, she was the only Asian conductor and one of just two women in the 20 who made it into the first round.

"We had 15 minutes to work with the Guildhall Orchestra and were told what to conduct just before the session. I got the first and final movements of Beethoven's First Symphony and Bartok's Divertimento for Strings. A jury member told me to feel free to talk during rehearsal. So I spoke [to the players] on Bartok which is quite difficult in the mixed-metre beat," she said.

Chan was one of 10, and the only woman, to go to the second round to compete with concertos and contemporary works.

"I got the Dvorak Cello Concerto, plus a contemporary work commissioned by LSO. A judge told me they really wanted to hear my 'reading'. So I changed my game plan and stepped up the rehearsal.

"We focused on the work and so enjoyed the process that the whole orchestra clapped for me at the end of the 30-minute session," she said.

Then came the final on December 8 at the Barbican in London, home of the LSO, when Chan confronted rivals from the Czech Republic and Estonia, each conducting their interpretations of the Egmont Overture, parts of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade based on a pre-concert draw.

"I was very lucky to be the first of the three to conduct Egmont when the orchestra was at its freshest. Instead of being loud and physical, I asked for the beauty of the dense music and the sound of LSO was noticeably changed. Judges told me during the interval that I got LSO to play beautifully," she recalled.

But the challenge was the two Russian works, which Chan had never conducted. She prayed not to get the inner movements of those pieces. But that was exactly what she got.

"It's always easier to conduct fast music than slow movements, which can be tricky.

"But the intricate and calm music turned out to be perfect for my musicality as a female conductor. I am grateful to the LSO players who offered me advice during rehearsal, asking for a clear downbeat at a crucial point.

"I was so pleasantly surprised that the audience burst into applause after the second movement, and I had to turn around to acknowledge before carrying on with the third," she said.

"The orchestra was totally with me and I felt very relaxed driving this Ferrari. I just had to fasten the seatbelt and enjoy [it]. Winning the prize or not was no longer my concern," she laughed.