Elim Chan Framing, Behavior and Challenging Stereotypes

When Elin Chen arrived in New York last week to prepare for her New York Philharmonic debut, her first stop wasn’t the orchestra’s home, David Geffen Hall, or a rehearsal room. It’s not even in the city.

Instead, she visited Smith College, her alma mater in Massachusetts, and met with young women interested in art. In the classroom, Chen, 37, told them candidly that she felt it was increasingly difficult for women to successfully direct.

“The pressure right now is crazy,” she recalls. “I’m really lucky.”

Just a decade ago, Ms. Chan, a native of Hong Kong, rose to prominence as the first woman to win Britain’s Donatella Flick Conducting Competition. She has since toured the world and held positions including principal conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra in Belgium.

On Thursday, she will lead the Philharmonic in Martinou’s Cello Concerto No. 1, with soloist Sol Gabetta; the world premiere of Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s “Pisachi”; Rimsky Korsakov’s Arabian Nights helped Chen secure victory in the final round of the Frick competition.

So far in her career, Chen has taken pleasure in subverting expectations of conductors and herself. When her relatives discouraged her from pursuing music because they feared it wouldn’t pay the bills, she rebelled. She fought back when colleagues questioned her credentials because she had not attended conservatory and had started conducting relatively late, during her sophomore year in college while dabbling in psychology and medicine. She smiled to herself when orchestra players thought she was too short or too fresh-faced for the podium. She also makes a point of maintaining an active life outside of music: She has become a devoted boxer, working with a coach in between fights.

“I hear people laughing or looking at me like, ‘Oh my gosh, can we meet her? Can we make the podium higher? Hahaha, is she nine years old?’ You can laugh if you want.” Laugh. But I know my stuff. Usually when I start, after about five minutes it gets quiet. Just music.

Her collaborators describe her as a rare conductor who can quickly win the trust of musicians.

“She’s completely herself, and that’s really cool,” said violinist Leila Josefowicz. “She was a very bold musician who would try all kinds of things, all kinds of pieces, all kinds of different ways to make music.”

Chen announced last year that she would resign from her position in Antwerp in May this year, a year before her contract expires. (The pandemic, she says, has made her reconsider “how I spend my energy, my time, my pressing matters.”) She doesn’t know exactly what the next step in her conducting career will be, but many expect she will continue Go down and be a force on the podium.

“She’s one of the brightest minds of her generation,” said Chad Smith, the Boston Symphony’s president and CEO, who formerly worked at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and helped hire Chen as the orchestra’s director. command. “She’s very muscular and efficient, which is very unusual.”

Pianist Igor Levit, a frequent collaborator, said Chen has high expectations for herself and the musicians she performs with. “However, she did not confuse this expectation with arrogance or Caesarian behavior,” he added. “It’s the perfect combination of the highest expectations and the highest degree of generosity.”

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

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

“In my mind,” she said, “it never occurred to me that a woman could be a conductor.”

She made her debut as a conductor at the age of 13, leading the girls’ choir of a Hong Kong secondary school. She recalled being inspired by Mickey Mouse in Fantasia.

“I want a magic wand,” she said. “I want to do something crazy.”

Chen was convinced that if she wanted to pursue music more seriously, she needed to go abroad. At Smith College, she also took courses in abnormal psychology, German literature, and Italian. She also began practicing conducting with a student orchestra. One day, while rehearsing “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem, she became obsessed with the sound of the bass drum, deciding that it wasn’t exciting enough to evoke hell.

At that moment, she realized she wanted to be a conductor. “It felt like a thunderbolt hit me hard in the head,” Chen said. “I heard this voice that was like, ‘Elim, that’s it. This is it. You must do this.

While at Smith College, she began attending retreats at Camp Medomac in Maine and later pursued a doctoral degree at the University of Michigan. Her teacher, Kenneth Kiesler, recalled practicing her etudes for hours in front of the window, where she could see her reflection. He said she had a sense of joy during rehearsals, such as when she exhorted the cello to “Sing your song!”

“She had a special gift from the beginning to be able to express her feelings like music, to be vulnerable and then express it again so that people could witness it,” Kiesler said. “It was kinesthetic. Talent, but also a chameleon-like response to music.”

In 2014, while still at the University of Michigan, she participated in the Frick Competition. In the final, the contestants performed with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre. As she prepared to conduct Scheherazade, she was nervous. But she was relieved when a cellist told her backstage that she should focus on being herself, rather than impressing the orchestra’s players.

Chen was proud of her win but also uncomfortable with the attention being focused on her gender and race. “I don’t want any special treatment because I’m a woman,” she later wrote in The Guardian. “I don’t want my gender, my femininity, to be a crutch for myself.”

The award, presented by the future King Charles III, included a one-year position as assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. She collaborated with Russian maestro Valery Gergiev, then the orchestra’s chief conductor, who invited her to tour Mexico with his Mariinsky Orchestra.

Another mentor was the famous conductor Bernard Haitink. During a master class, he invited Chen, without warning, to conduct the second movement of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony.

She started boxing ten years ago when she moved to London, looking for a way to prevent back and shoulder pain and clear her mind. She practices several times a week. “When I’m boxing, I can’t think about anything else or I’ll get a black eye,” she said. “I like this.”

As chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra since 2019, Ms. Chen has won praise for her energy and drive. In the future, she said, she would like to spend time exploring the operatic repertoire. She aspires to one day take a full-time position with an American or other European orchestra.

Now in New York, she’s trying to evaluate the acoustics of the recently renovated Geffen Hall. She said she was looking forward to appearing with her friend Gabetta and returning to Scheherazade.

“I was very excited and curious, but also calm,” she said. “It just felt like the time was right.”

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