In late 2014, Elim Chan ’09 ascended the podium as a contestant in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Donatella Flick Conducting Competition. By the time she lowered her baton in the final round—conducting Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which she had first conducted as a music major at Smith—she had bested 225 competitors to become the first woman to win the competition in its 25-year history. The prize was a one-year position as assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, working alongside legendary conductors like Marin Alsop, André Previn and Bernard Haitink. She’s currently at the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a Dudamel Fellow and will become chief conductor of the NorrlandsOperan, an opera company in Sweden, this fall.
Music wasn’t her initial plan.
“When I arrived at Smith, I thought I would do science. Maybe 10 percent of me wanted to do music—I didn’t even take a music class my first semester. I did do choir after classes. Early on, the conductor [Deanna Joseph] told me I had good ears and that I could be an assistant conductor. But it was still a hobby.”
That was when she got a break that would change everything.
“People saw something in me, and they kept giving me opportunities. And then [conductor Jonathan Hirsh] gave me the opportunity to conduct ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem. In this piece, everything is dramatic—hell is opening up, the bass drum is pounding, there are big choruses. There were men and women singing; there was a huge orchestra. I didn’t think I actually had the guts to conduct it.”
The experience felt like a fundamental transformation.
“When I started conducting that piece, I remember the sound. I remember being in the center of everything and creating the moment. Something changed in me. I knew I would never forget how great it felt. How could I be scared if the experience was like this?”
Then she broke the conducting glass ceiling in the Flick Conducting Competition.
“During the competition, I was only focusing on becoming a finalist—I wasn’t worried about others. It was only after I won that there was so much interest in me being a woman. Before that, I hadn’t felt treated any differently.”
“I will always talk to young girls about having big dreams, whether that’s conducting or going to the moon.”
She understands she bears the weight of that achievement.
“I was happy to inspire a lot of women,and I hope that I did my alma mater proud. But I don’t want my gender to take away from what I can bring [to music] as a person. I’m not ‘just a girl.’ There’s a whole package of who I am, and I hope to be recognized as a great musician instead of a great female musician. But I will always talk to young girls about having big dreams, whether that’s conducting or going to the moon.”
Now she hopes to set her dreams in motion.
“For my work in Sweden, I’ll have the chance to build something. For example, the orchestra will feature a lot of women composers, and I like the idea of helping and promoting women artists. I also like the idea of having a ‘family’ where you can make something more permanent.”
SAQ, Spring 2017