Elim Chan conducts the CSO in a banner year for debuts with top orchestras

Elim Chan’s life was transformed in 2014, when at age 28 she became the first and only woman so far to win the prestigious Donatella Flick Conducting Competition in London. “That was the big moment, the event that put me on the map at the beginning,” she said from her home in Amsterdam.

As one of the prizes, she was named assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 2015–16, the first in a series of posts that have gained her increasing attention in the field including her position as principal conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra which she has held since 2019. She also served as former guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra from 2018 to 2023.

Reflecting this new-found standing, Chan, 37, is making debuts with a dazzling array of orchestras during the 2023–24 season, including the Danish National Orchestra, Staatskapelle Berlin, New York Philharmonic, Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal and Minnesota Orchestra.

“The excitement, surprise and mystery factor of it makes it extra special,” she said of these first-time engagements. “You meet a lot of new people and see how the dance goes.”

“The excitement, surprise and mystery factor of it makes it extra special,” she said of these first-time engagements. “You meet a lot of new people and see how the dance goes.”

Another important ensemble on that list is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which she will lead May 2 and 4 in a program that includes famed organ soloist Paul Jacobs performing Samuel Barber’s rarely heard Toccata festiva (1960).

Although this is her first time leading the full orchestra, she did oversee a concert in May 2017 at the Harris Theater as part of the CSO MusicNOW, a contemporary music series that features members of the orchestra and guest artists.

For her debut concerts, Chan always tries to include at least one example of what she calls “party pieces,” works that she has done many times and ones in which she can show who she is and what she can bring to the table as a conductor.

Fitting the bill on this program is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a thrilling, ever-popular 1880 symphonic suite inspired by the celebrated collection of Middle Eastern tales known as The Arabian Nights

The piece has a lot of meaning for Chan because it was the work she led in the finals of the Flick Competition, and she has conducted it during some of her most important concerts. “So, in that sense, I’m very happy that I can do that for my debut in Chicago,” she said.

Opening the program is the Overture to Die Freischutz, a work completed in 1821 by Carl Maria von Weber that is considered the first German Romantic opera. Chan believes it really celebrates the orchestra, with the music smartly conveying the opera’s psychology, magic and emotions. “In eight minutes, you can really tell and feel the gist of the opera,” she said. 

The suggestion of the Barber concerto came from Jacobs, and she was immediately on board. “I didn’t even know the piece existed until talking with the CSO about this program,” she said. “You don’t see an organ soloist that often. I think this is my first one to work with. So, I’m very excited.”

Chan’s first exposure to classical music came while growing up in Hong Kong and listening to the “juke box” range of styles from new age to jazz that her father played in his studio while he pursued his painting. The future conductor recalls hearing Johann Strauss waltzes, Gustav Holst’s The Planets and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. She later joined a children’s choir, where she discovered the joy of making music with other people.

But music was not at the forefront of her mind when came to the United States to study at Smith College, a women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. Instead, she was focused on a medical degree with an emphasis in psychiatry. “One of my big passions if I weren’t going to be a musician,” she said, “I would really love to be a crime investigator or a detective. I loved crime stories. So, there was this big part of me that wanted to study people.”

She took no music classes during her freshman year but soon joined the college’s chorus, which has a long, rich history.  Music started worming its way back into her life, and she ended up switching majors.

During her sophomore year, she had what she called a “life-changing moment” when she was one of the three students chosen to lead a combined choral concert with singers from Penn State University. She was asked to lead the Dies irae from Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, what she called “one of the most iconic, terrifying pieces of music in the canon.” Right from the first minutes of the rehearsal, she realized she had discovered what she really wanted to do. “That was the moment,” she said. “It was like a point of no return. You have tasted that and you can’t go back to just studying psychology.”

After graduating in 2009, she went on to pursue graduate and doctoral studies in conducting with Kenneth Kiesler at the University of Michigan. She served as music director of the University of Michigan Campus Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble for non-music majors, and led the Michigan Pops Orchestra, another student ensemble, in 2012–13.

She finished her doctorate in 2015 and began her London post, which provided her with an ideal opportunity to start putting into practice all that she had learned and hone her skills even further. The ensemble’s chief conductor at the time was Valery Gergiev, who has since fallen out of favor in many parts of the West because of his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the instigator of the country’s ongoing war with Ukraine. Chan was quick to acknowledge the dark cloud hanging over Gergiev. “But he was a great conductor, and that was the person whom I had to assist,” she said.

“There are still pieces that I haven’t done for the first time, and they are important pieces,” she said. “And I want to get them done before it’s too late.”

Around this same time, Chan met Bernard Haitink (the CSO’s principal conductor from 2006 to 2010) during a series of masterclasses at the Easter Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland. “He had so much to offer,” she said. “He is not someone who talks a lot, but everything he said was really essential.” For the final class, she was supposed to conduct the first movement from Anton Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, but at the last minute, Haitink asked her to do the second movement instead, apparently to test her resourcefulness under pressure. She was “flabbergasted,” because she had not prepared that section, but she managed to get through it.

Afterward, Haitink told Chan that her conducting always made him pay attention and listen. “That was something I will always remember,” she said. “At that moment, I was still angry, but I also wanted to cry because I was very moved. For him to say something like this, I can’t get a bigger compliment.” She went on to work more with the famed conductor in London.

Chan is ending her position in Antwerp at the end of 2023–24, a season earlier than specified in her most recent contract extension. “It was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot,” she said. But she has gone through a period of reassessment. “Suddenly, there was this question of: What do I really want to do?” she said. “And the thing I want to do, and I don’t want to waste any more time, is that I would really like to try my hand at opera.”

At the same time, she wants to explore where her relationships with other orchestras are going. “I just really want to concentrate on projects with soloists and orchestras that I have really enjoyed working with,” she said. She also wants to fill in some gaps in her repertoire. “There are still pieces that I haven’t done for the first time, and they are important pieces,” she said. “And I want to get them done before it’s too late.”