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Elim Chan Inspires Women “To Do Their Thing Loudly”

Lau Kwok Kei

All this month, during Women’s History Month, The American Sound will feature performances by noted American women conductors, and online stories showcasing the conductors’ careers and accomplishments. Tune in Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on Classical 101, and follow this blog as the series unfolds.

In December 2014, Elim Chan became the first woman to win the Donatella Flick LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) Conducting Competition. The win was yet another indication of a sea change taking place in the profession of orchestral conducting and, needless to say, it also changed Chan’s life.

“It’s a huge change, because all of a sudden I’m in the spotlight,” said Chan, a doctoral student in conducting at the University of Michigan, in a recent phone interview. “It’s almost a little like Cinderella. I have been always a student, and because of this competition, everything is out there, and now people ask about me. So it’s a huge change.”

With her competition win Chan will begin this fall one season as an assistant conductor of the LSO. As she wraps up her student days and looks ahead to starting her work with a major international orchestra, Chan is keenly aware of the other – if still relatively few – women conductors who have stood before her on prestigious podiums like that of the LSO.

“You look at Marin Alsop, you look at Joana Carniero (and) Joann Falletta – they’re all out there and they’re working and they’re in big positions, but still you look at how there are so little of us out there. But at the same time, it’s changing, the world is changing,” Chan said.

As one of a younger generation of women conductors and as a self-described people person, Chan says she brings to her work her own sensibility about a conductor’s role as a bridge-builder among people.

“Since I was young, I’ve always seen a conductor as something like – you’re the soul, the spirit behind all the people onstage,” Chan said.

And just like Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta and other women conductors who have helped pave the way for her success, Chan says she hopes that her recent competition win – and eventually her career – will encourage young women who aspire to conduct “to do their thing loudly.”

“It Kind of Stirred My Heart”

Although orchestral conducting is still a heavily male-dominated profession, it was actually seeing a woman conduct an orchestra in her native Hong Kong that inspired Chan in her earliest years.

“It kind of stirred my heart when I first watched a conductor. And it was like during my first ever orchestra concert, when I was – I don’t know – like 8 or 9. And interestingly, the conductor at the time was a woman. And something happened in my heart. I was like, Wow, you know what? I want to be in that place. I want to be her. And I had no idea, Oh, it’s, like, a male thing. I just thought, you can do it if you want,” Chan said.

Chan attended girls’ schools in Hong Kong and grew up studying piano, cello and voice. In Hong Kong, which as a British colony has long acquired many of its cultural values from the West, Chan says she never had to ignore cultural voices that might have discouraged her from becoming a conductor because of her sex. But she did hear expressions of concern about the instability and bleak income prospects of musical careers in general.

“My family, at first when they found out (that) I’m interested in music, they were not very sure I should pursue this, but it’s more like not because I’m a woman, but because in Asia it’s more like, Oh you should only do business and science or become a doctor. Those are the things that will earn money,” Chan said.

At some point, those cultural voices gained a foothold in Chan’s mind. By the time she entered Smith College, Chan had set aside her dream of becoming a conductor.

“I also thought maybe it was too difficult to do (conducting), because (with) conducting you need to know so many things,” Chan said. “But then I came to the States in 2005 for my undergrad, and I thought, Okay, you know what? I’ll study science.”

But that decision didn’t last long. It was also during her years at Smith that Chan decided to pursue a conducting career full-time. She says Smith College gave her countless opportunities to develop her skills, even if she ultimately opted to ignore some of the early career advice she received there.

“Along the way there would be teachers who told me, ‘You know, maybe you should choose to do choir conducting.’ I started as a choir conductor, but immediately I knew the orchestra is something I want to conduct,” Chan said. “But I had mentors who told me, ‘Maybe you should do choir conducting because it’s easier for a woman.’ And it intrigued me, because I’m like, ‘Why?’”

Other mentors also warned Chan that she could expect it to be lonely at the top – where every successful conductor ultimately finds herself – and that travel and other demands of an orchestral conducting career would make it difficult for her to maintain a family.

“That’s when I also understood that if you have a dream, if you have something you want to do, you just go forward, and there should not be any difference between a man and a woman,” Chan said.

“To Do Their Thing Loudly”

And yet Chan learned immediately that there are great differences in how a man and a woman are perceived when on the podium.

“I conducted some concerts (with) an orchestra. When I walked out, there are some musicians who would say, ‘Oh, she’s so cute,’ or some people would say, ‘She’s small and Asian.’ Immediately people would look at me differently, like, What can she do? There were just different expectations for me. And I’m thinking, That should not happen, because I should walk out and people should expect me exactly like a male conductor. That all makes me think, Wow, it’s still tough,” Chan said.

As tough as the conducting field may still be for women, things are looking up. there are more women in high-level orchestra and opera conducting positions around the world than ever before, and Chan says she sees this trend continuing into the future. But until the conducting profession has changed to the extent that audiences no longer notice the sex of the conductor on the podium, and no longer have different expectations for conductors based on their gender, aspiring women conductors can expect to have to do double duty – develop expertise as artists and leaders just as their male counterparts must do, and do the work of proving to their male counterparts that women, too, deserve to stand on the podium.

“It’s like we have to work double so that we can prove that we deserve to be up there,” Chan said.

But Chan’s success at the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition might be an indication that all that work is really starting to pay off. Chan says she believes the competition jury recognized three things every conductor must have in order to be successful – total command of their musical scores, evidence of tremendous sweat equity and a presence that commands attention – based on what they saw on the podium, without regard to gender.

“It’s really great to see that (the jury) actually took that step to really just honor what was on the podium, what was brought out there, and then I became the first woman to win,” Chan said. “And because of that I can only hope that this will inspire more female artists to really be courageous to go out there and do their thing loudly.”

“There Should Not Be Boxes Anymore”

The next chapter of Chan’s career begins in May, when she graduates from the University of Michigan’s doctoral program in conducting. At that time, she’ll begin in earnest her appointment as an assistant conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra. And as much as Chan says she doesn’t think about being a woman when she’s on the podium, she also considers her gender, specifically, to be one of the assets she brings with her.

“It adds to what I bring to the podium because I’m a woman, it’s actually what’s unique about me,” Chan said. “But in the end, your gender should not be a thing that people should use it as something to go against you, but it should be a good factor that adds to what you already have. It has a different flavor because I’m a woman. So I really think you should use who you are, every part of who you are. Being a female is part of who I am, and that adds to my work and my music.”

And while Chan is just now on the cusp of a major conducting career, she is also entering the profession in an age that has seen Marin Alsop ascend to the podium of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as the first woman music director of a major American orchestra and the appointment of Susanna Mälkki as the first female chief conductor of the august Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Just as the woman conductor Chan saw in Hong Kong as a child and the pathbreaking Marin Alsop have paved the way for Chan’s success as a conductor, Chan hopes that her career will also eventually help open the doors of the conducting profession wider for younger women who aspire to pick up the baton and lead.

“It takes time. And it takes a lot of just both (men and women) to understand and to take a step to actually get outside of their box – there should not be boxes anymore,” Chan said. “I’m very hopeful and I can’t imagine in ten years what will be the scene. And at least I’m willing to commit to work as hard as I can and at the same time inspire and encourage female conductors to get out there and do what you do.”

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Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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