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La Maestra

A new face in the Golden Hall: In her portrait at the Musikverein, the highly acclaimed conductor Elim Chan, from Hong Kong, conducts the ORF RSO Vienna, the Wiener Symphoniker and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen.

In Hollywood, a saying is sometimes attributed to Bette Davis, sometimes to Mae West: “It takes ten years to become famous overnight.” That’s precisely what you could say about Elim Chan. In 2014 she won the prestigious Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, which entailed an assistant position with the London Symphony Orchestra. The professional world was stunned. But so was she. “It was like a fairy tale,” recalls the 35-year-old. “Like the Cinderella story: from nobody to someone.” But no one makes it out of nowhere onto such a winner’s podium. Ten years of hard work are always behind it, sometimes 15 or 20. And this also applies to Elim Chan.

As a little girl, she jumped around as a painter in her father’s studio. Sau-Nam Chang, now retired, portrayed old Cantonese Hong Kong – which has long since been largely demolished to make way for modern apartment towers and business skyscrapers. “He loved visiting these places and meeting the old people there, listening to their stories and making sketches.” To carry them out afterwards in his studio. Always with classical music in the background.

“When he left the studio, I would sneak in and look at all the CDs he had left behind,” his daughter says. And put them in the player again. At age five or six, she heard a polka by Johann Strauss for the first time, but also Gustav Holst’s “Planets”. She danced through the studio, often just before dinner. “A little moment that I had all to myself.”

At the age of seven, she became a member of a children’s choir, and she began piano lessons. “It’s completely normal in Hong Kong; every child learns an instrument,” she says. The parents there regard classical music as an effective means of teaching their offspring discipline and perseverance.

“It was like a fairy tale, like the Cinderella story: from nobody to someone.”

Elim Chan

The mother’s profession? An employee of the city administration. She is a very logical and rational person, the complete opposite of the father. And Elim Chan is – that much is clear after just a few minutes of a video call – the perfect mix of both: sober and structured like the mother and emotional and passionate like the father. Not the worst prerequisite for the conducting profession. Added to this is her great pleasure in communication, exchange and contact.

At the age of twelve, she began to take cello lessons. “I really wanted to be part of an orchestra.” She had previously failed on the trumpet: “I almost fainted while playing.” The fascination for the orchestra – where did it come from? “I went to a concert for the first time when I was nine or ten. It was a trip with my school.” About which she had to write an essay afterwards. It was conducted by Yip Wing-sie, head of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, from 1986 to 2000. Elim’s essay was about her. “One day I want to be where she is now” – “One day I want to be there” is her last sentence. That a woman on the podium was still a rare phenomenon in the 90s? “I didn’t know. I thought it was quite normal.”

After graduation, the shares inherited from the mother initially win. “It was a battle between heart and head,” she says. And the head wins the race: Elim enrols in Massachusetts to study medicine. Focus: Psychology and Forensics. She also sings in the university choir. But the choice soon feels wrong: Everything is more challenging for her than the others in medicine – and in music, everything is more straightforward. “In medicine, I had to do three times as much as my friends and still didn’t get past a certain point. I reached the limit very quickly.”
In music, the opposite is true. She becomes assistant to the Unichor director. At 19, in a rehearsal, she was allowed to conduct the “Dies Irae” of the Verdi Requiem instead. An internal earthquake is a result. She knows: This is mine. After three years, she changes her field of study. In 2007 she obtained her Bachelor of Arts, then a Master of Conducting, and in 2014 she received a doctorate in conducting.

In the same year, however, she also won the Donatella Flick Competition mentioned at the beginning – and since then, things have been going on in quick succession: For the 2015/16 season, she is in London and for 2016/17 as a participant in the Dudamel Fellowship Program in Los Angeles. Since 2018 she has had a contract as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In 2019 she will take over the position of Chief Conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra. And so, within a few years, she becomes one of those young conductors the world begins to look at.

Today she lives in Amsterdam. She shares her life with a Dutch percussionist. So everything is in perfect order? “Yes,” she says. But after a short pause, he adds a half-sentence: “Now again.” And tells of difficult months in 2017. Because her career did not go so smoothly and seamlessly. “Until then, I had always accepted everything. But then I reached that point where nothing worked.” She got sick, and got a cold. “But I ignored them because I had obligations. So I flew from America to Europe and on to Asia.” And then: sudden, high fever. “When I landed in Hong Kong and wanted to go on to Vietnam, I suddenly couldn’t breathe.” The diagnosis: pneumonia. Contagious.

“The disease stopped my life.” She was isolated in the clinic for three weeks and could not speak for six weeks. In the end, it took her six months to recover. “I learned my lesson the hard way,” she says today. This means: Since then, she has never been away from Amsterdam for more than three weeks. But since then, she has also taken better care of herself – and she sets limits.

And now: the invitation of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde – for an own portrait in the programme of the Musikverein. In the first second, her mouth was open, so overwhelmed she was. What an honour! “That was a shock. But a wonderful one.” She will make her Austrian debut on 14 October in the Großer Musikvereinssaal alongside Gidon Kremer.

There will be four concerts in total – two with Víkingur Ólafsson and one with Truls Mørk will be added. “The Musikverein and I developed all the programmes together, and the soloists asked me about my wishes or preferences.” Gidon Kremer? “He is the champion and has time – what a gift! And when he then plays work with the ‘Offertorium’ that was written especially for him – as a conductor, you immediately and enthusiastically say ‘yes’.”

Víkingur Ólafsson? “I suggested it myself. For me, he is currently one of the best ambassadors of my generation for classical music. And his game is…” – she searches for words – “… overwhelming.” Truls Mørk? “The God of the Cellos. When he plays, he completely steps back behind the music. I also wished for him very much, and I am delighted that the Musikverein was able to realise this.”

We talk about the works on the program on the four evenings, about the composers, and our favourite composers. She mentions Shostakovich (“I love Russian music and the drama it has”) and that she was only able to approach Brahms (“I was afraid of him for a long time”) via the detour Rachmaninoff. Which works would she take with her to a desert island? “At the moment: Brahms’ symphonies.”

In addition to all the good qualities she possesses – diligence, discipline, humour, self-irony, assertiveness, fearlessness – one thing above all remains in the memory: Elim Chan is not only self-confident – she is aware of herself. In a very literal sense and as perfect as few people are.

Text by Margot Weber.

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