She boxes. She conducts. She delights in defying stereotypes.
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She boxes. She conducts. She delights in defying stereotypes.
Elim Chan in New York on March 3, 2024. Chan, who is making her New York Philharmonic debut this week, blazed onto the scene as the first woman to win a prestigious conducting contest. (Lanna Apisukh/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- When Elim Chan arrived in New York last week to prepare for her New York Philharmonic debut, her first stop was not David Geffen Hall, the orchestra’s home, or a rehearsal studio. It wasn’t even in the city.

Instead, she visited Smith College, her alma mater in Massachusetts, to meet with young women interested in the arts. In a classroom, Chan, 37, candidly told them that she felt it was getting harder for women to succeed in conducting.

“Now the pressure is insane,” she recalled saying. “I was really lucky.”

It was only a decade ago that, Chan, a native of Hong Kong, blazed onto the scene as the first woman to win the esteemed Donatella Flick Conducting Competition in England. Since then, she has joined the global concert circuit and taken on jobs including chief conductor at the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra in Belgium.

On Thursday, she will lead the Philharmonic in performances of Martinu’s First Cello Concerto, featuring soloist Sol Gabetta; the world premiere of Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s “Pisachi”; and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” a piece that helped Chan clinch her victory in the final round of the Flick competition.

So far in her career, Chan has delighted in upending expectations about conducting and herself. She defied her relatives when they discouraged her from pursuing music because they were worried it would not pay the bills. She pushed back when colleagues challenged her credentials because she did not attend a conservatory and came to conducting relatively late — as a college sophomore — while dabbling in psychology and medicine. And she smiled to herself when orchestra players dismissed her as too short or fresh faced to be on the podium. She has also made a point of maintaining an active life outside music: She has become a devoted boxer, working with a coach between engagements.

“I’ve heard people laughing or looking at me like: ‘Oh my goodness can we see her? Can we make the podium taller? Ha ha ha, is she 9 years old?’” Chan said. “You can laugh all you want. But I know my stuff. And usually when I start, after five minutes or so, it gets quiet. There’s just music.”

Her collaborators say that she is a rare conductor who can quickly win the trust of musicians.

“She’s totally herself, which is really wonderful,” said violinist Leila Josefowicz. “She’s a very daring musician, and she’s going to try all kinds of things, all kinds of works, all kinds of different ways to make music.”

Chan announced last year that she would step down from her post in Antwerp this May, a year before her contract was to expire. (The pandemic, she said, had made her reconsider “how do I want to spend my energy, my time, and what is urgent.”) She does not know exactly the next move in her conducting career, but many expect she will continue to be a force on the podium.

“She’s one of her generation’s really bright lights,” said Chad Smith, the president and chief executive of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who in a previous role at the Los Angeles Philharmonic helped to hire Chan as a conducting fellow there. “She has this muscularity as well as this efficiency which is very unusual.”

Pianist Igor Levit, a frequent collaborator, said Chan had high expectations for both herself and the musicians she performs with. “And yet she doesn’t mix up or confuse this expectation with arrogance or Julius Caesar-like behavior,” he added. “There is this really wonderful mix of the highest expectation and yet the highest degree of generosity.”

Chan grew up in Kowloon; her father worked as an art teacher and a painter, and her mother was a civil servant. As a child, she liked stories about crime and thought she might become a coroner or a detective. But she also developed a love for music, singing in a school choir and taking up the cello.

When she was 8, she attended a concert by the Hong Kong Philharmonic. The conductor was Yip Wing-sie, one of the relatively few women in the field.

“In my head,” she said, “there was never a question that women could be conductors.”

She conducted for the first time at 13, leading the girls’ choir at her secondary school in Hong Kong. She recalled being inspired by Mickey Mouse in “Fantasia.”

“I wanted to have a magic wand,” she said, “and I wanted to do something crazy.”

Chan was convinced that she would need to go abroad if she were to pursue music more seriously. At Smith, she also took classes in abnormal psychology, German literature and Italian. She also began to practice conducting with a student orchestra. One day, while rehearsing the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem, she grew fixated on the sound of the bass drum, thinking that it was not agitated enough to evoke hell.

In that moment, she realized that she wanted to be a conductor. “It felt like a thunderbolt just hit me so hard on my head,” Chan said. “I heard this voice that was like: ‘Elim this is it. This is it. You have to do this.’”

While at Smith, she began attending conducting retreats at the Medomak camp in Maine, and later enrolled in a doctorate program at the University of Michigan. Her teacher there, Kenneth Kiesler, recalled her practicing études for hours on an end in front of a window, where she could see her reflection. She had a sense of joy during rehearsals, he said, such as when she exhorted cellos to “Sing your song!”

“She had a particular gift from the beginning to look like the music, to show what she felt, to be vulnerable, and then let it come out again, so that people could witness it,” Kiesler said. “It’s a kinesthetic gift, as well as a kind of chameleon-like response to music.”

In 2014, while still at Michigan, she entered the Flick competition. In the final round, contestants performed with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Center. She was nervous as she prepared to conduct “Scheherazade.” But she felt relieved after a cellist told her backstage that she should focus on being herself, not on impressing the orchestra’s players.

Chan was proud of her victory but also felt uncomfortable with the focus on her gender and race. “I do not want to be given any special treatment because I am a woman,” she later wrote in The Guardian. “I do not want my gender, my femininity, to become a crutch of my own.”

The award, presented by the future King Charles III, included a one-year assistant conductorship at the London Symphony. She worked with the Russian maestro Valery Gergiev, then the orchestra’s principal conductor, who invited her to take part in a tour in Mexico with his Mariinsky Orchestra.

Another mentor was the renowned conductor Bernard Haitink. At one master class, he asked Chan, without warning, to lead the second movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6. She was terrified, but then encouraged when he told her that her conducting had made him listen.

She took up boxing when she moved to London a decade ago, looking for a way to prevent back and shoulder pain and to clear her mind. She practices several times a week. “When I’m boxing I can’t think of anything else or I would get a black eye,” she said. “And I love that.”

As chief conductor of the Antwerp orchestra since 2019, Chan has earned praise for her energy and drive. In the future, she said, she would like to spend time exploring the opera repertoire. And she is eager to take on some day a full-time post at an American or another European ensemble.

Now that she is in New York, Chan has tried to gauge the acoustics of the recently renovated Geffen Hall. She said she was looking forward to appearing with Gabetta, a friend, and returning to “Scheherazade.”

“I’m very excited and curious and yet very calm,” she said. “It just feels like it’s the time.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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