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Elim Chan’s BSO Debut

Elim Chan
Willeke Machiels
Elim Chan

Saturday, September 17, 2022
8:00 PM

In her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut, conductor Elim Chan leads a pair of powerhouse works in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Igor Levit.

Elim Chan, conductor
Igor Levit, piano

Johannes BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2
Brian Raphael NABORS Pulse
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 2

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Concert originally broadcast live from Symphony Hall in Saturday, January 22, 2022.

To hear conductor Elim Chan previews the program, describes the spark of her conducting career while a student at Smith College, and her work with conductor Bernard Haitink, click on the link above.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Elim Chan, who's here with the Boston Symphony, leading the orchestra for the very first time. Elim, thanks so much for your time today.

Elim Chan Thank you for having me.

Brian McCreath So, this program that you are making your debut with the orchestra with, sort of a reverse order in a way, but let's talk about the second half first, which is where we begin with Brian Raphael Nabors, his piece Pulse. Had you known his music before, or even this piece, before this week working with the orchestra?

Elim Chan No, and I'm actually very happy that the BSO has led me to this composer. Of course, you know, this all comes in the discussion of the program. And when I saw this, of course, I was like, Well, who is this? What is this piece? And BSO told me that, actually, this piece was supposed to be premiered with Andris Nelsons, of course. Then the pandemic happened and the piece got canceled. But of course, BSO was really enthusiastic with the piece and said, like, could you consider putting this on your debut?

And I said, OK, of course, I will look at the piece because I mean, I do want to, you know, before making a decision like this, I want to make sure that, you know, does the piece, you know, fit me or do I fit the piece? And, you know, exploring the composer - and actually, I think the piece started from a chamber version of this version that we're doing - and I mean, I was immediately like, you know, it was just something was very enchanting about the piece, the energy and the fact that, you know, I mean, the name Pulse, he really sort of transfer this, you know, the meaning of "pulse" from the very beginning. It's just like, no matter the music is sort of quiet or fast, there's always like, you know, this sort of spirit and that he was really trying to bring the human spirit into this. And I feel it from the very beginning. And you know, there's always this moments with percussion and then, you know, it really just feels like, you know, good, you know? And so I thought, yeah, like immediately, I said, yes, I'm happy to take this on. So here we are.

Brian McCreath Have you had a chance to be in touch with the composer himself about the piece?

Elim Chan Yeah. Well, actually, I have been looking forward to meeting him the whole time. And again, unfortunately, because of this time and, you know, COVID has blocked him from traveling to Boston, and he's very sad. And I found out this morning, you know, before the first rehearsal that he couldn't be here. So actually, right after I'm talking to you, I will, you know, call and write to him because musicians have tons of questions and I have my questions as well. But then, you know, we have to do it remotely, you know, as we have learned how to work, since the last two years

Brian McCreath Right, yeah, yeah, it's the way of our lives. Well, so when you talk about putting together the program, and you were asked to do this piece by Brian Rafael Nabors, where did the conversation begin with the BSO? Was it that piece or was it with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Number Two? How did the program begin in your mind and conversation?

Elim Chan It first came when I got this invitation and very early on it was Igor Levit already on the invitation. So immediately I was like, OK, with Igor, what does he want to do? Because of course, you know, I want to make something that fit. And from that moment, Brahms Second [Piano Concerto] has already sort of emerged from the conversation. And so talking about, you know, Second Brahms, which is, you know, an enormous and very special piece - I mean, both concerti of Brahms is it's on its own, in its own world. It has this, you know, status. But then what to go with Brahms Second? Because you know, like you said, because Brahms takes its space, you really need to just give the whole half to it. You know, if I put Brian's piece, you know, on top, it's almost feel like, and then you don't give either, you know, justice. And so it started with that, like, what to go with Brahms Second.

And you know, interestingly, and I love doing Russian music. It's been, you know, in my repertoire, many Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and of course, there are always, you know, sort of I call party pieces, you know, that, you know, when you do a debut, you sort of send in that, because these are, you know, like, these are your ace cards. You know, you can be very confident. And somehow, I don't know, Tchaikovsky's Second, it's like sort of tickling, you know, in my head. I mean, maybe the two, you know, the [Brahms] Second, the [Tchaikovsky] Second, you have this sort of balance, you know, this idea. But then I thought even though it's called "Little Russian," it's not little at all.

Brian McCreath Right, right. It's a big piece.

Elim Chan It is. And, so I thought, you know, because it's also a piece that's not done so often, I mean, it's in the repertoire, but definitely not as the [Symphonies] Four - Five - Six. And I thought, you know, why not come to BSO with this piece, which I really love. And it has a very special place because it's, well, it has some meaning, it's Tchaikovsky. It has this bombastic moment, but at the same time, it is so beautiful. It is written when he was actually quite happy in his life. And you can hear it, you know, in so many charming moments. And I thought, you know, I would take this piece. I would be very happy to see how BSO, you know, does this. So then it [became] sort of Tchaikovsky Second and then Brahms Second and then Brian to finish out.

Brian McCreath Yeah, sure, sure. And when it comes to the Tchaikovsky Second, you know, you reference the the other, the most played symphonies, the Four - Five - Six. Is there something about the Second that poses a different challenge from those? I mean, yes, it is in the repertoire, but not played as much as those other symphonies. Is there something that is demanded of you or the orchestra or both of you that's unique among Tchaikovsky's symphonies?

Elim Chan Well, actually, you know, from the very beginning, the first time I got to know the piece I was studying, I was like, why this is not played as much, as you know, the Four - Five - Six? I mean, of course, you know, the form as we know, like, you know, by the time that Tchaikovsky got to the later symphonies, it's, you know, it's sort of the way it's really completely not in the sort of, you know, what we know as the sonata form, right? It sort of completely got blown out. But the Second is actually really, in the way, very Germanic if you actually look at it. And I thought, because that's why I was like, It's such a really perfect [piece]. It does its, it works, and it's sort of, you look at it like, that's why it also comes to me, it goes well with the Brahms. It has this sort of look back connection, and that's why I took it as well.

I think the challenge of it is, you know, it has this charm to it. It's very different from the dark, you know, like what we know of from Tchaikovsky, the Fourth especially, you know. And Six we don't need to talk about, it's basically his, you know, death note. But then in Second, you taste this, it's almost like Brahms Second Symphony. You hear this, you know, like the second movement, this March, it almost came out from a rustic village that, you know, it's nothing like roaring about it. It is very charming, it's very innocent, rustic, and maybe this quality makes it like not equal, you know, "equal" to the later, the more powerful Tchaikovsky. But I actually think Tchaikovsky is so comfortable and confident in this that is so easy. But I think this quality of, you know, it looks so simple, that can be an illusion that people take it like, Oh, you know, not serious, maybe.

And then the last movement, it's just, you know, sort of like, what is he doing? Because it's basically the same theme over and over again, and it takes a lot of effort actually to balance, to get the right colors or else you will actually be like, you know, Are we done with this? Like you're banging your head on the wall again and again, again, again, you know? So actually, yes, then the challenge is really, like, the patience and the [keeping it] under control, you know, when to get to the high point. This is where Tchaikovsky really want to go, you know?

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah. I guess that repetition demands something of you and the orchestra to keep it interesting, to keep something, keep some sort of variety of texture or color or pacing. I guess that would be the challenge them.

Elim Chan Exactly. And talking about, you know, we're in a time where we don't have what, like 13 rehearsals to fix, you know, every little thing, it can be challenging, like you said, how to use the limited time to get so much out of a movement like this.

Brian McCreath Well, speaking of limited time, I mean, this is an orchestra that works on this timetable on a regular basis. What are your first impressions after now leading the BSO in your first rehearsal with them?

Elim Chan First of all, it's my first time even in the Symphony Hall. So I've been already, like, jumping before I got on stage, you know. I was like, Can I just take a peep? Because I heard so, so much, you know, it's just, it's legendary, this hall, the acoustic. And of course, when I got on there, I'm like, Oh my God, like, I'm just like wanting to like [screams]. But then, of course, no, poise, I'm staying calm. So that is amazing. And then you have an orchestra, always, you know, rehearse and play in this hall. I mean, what can you ask for more, right? And so the sound is beautiful. The quality of sound is really good. And then the the thing is, I'm so moved by how fast they are and open.

Brian McCreath How quickly they respond to what you're asking for and changes here or there?

Elim Chan And sometimes you don't need to talk. They react to my gestures, and then you can, oh great, then you don't need to comment on it, because it's fixed, you know, they got it. And then if I do it differently, they also got it, you know. So it's like, great, you know, I can be like, you know, flexible, which is wonderful.

Brian McCreath Now you were born in Hong Kong and you came to the United States for college.

Elim Chan I did.

Brian McCreath But not necessarily for music in college, if I have my stories correct. So what brought you to the United States? And by the way, we should say, a college very close to here, Smith College. What brought you to Smith?

Elim Chan Yeah. So I've wanted to study abroad since I was very young. I don't know why I have, you know, a girl from Hong Kong, I always dreamed my life would be elsewhere. And of course, at the age when I was in high school, when you think about what's the next step, the United States is one of the biggest, if not the most obvious way, you know, full of great universities. And actually, interestingly, Smith had their representatives to come to my school to give, you know, a presentation. And from early on, somehow the way that they approached me and said, because for me at the time, I couldn't decide what I really want to do. I really love psychology. You know, my second dream, if I'm not a musician is, I want to become a spy and work on, like, you know, criminal investigation. I mean, even also, if it's not spy, I want to do like forensic stuff, like I want to be in that world. So psychology is one of the subjects I really want to do. But at the same time, I love music, so I have to sort of struggle. And Smith actually offered that, you know, opportunity to do both, or do more. You have the first two years to just explore, right, until junior year, you picked what you want to do. So I don't know from early on, I think they just grabbed this attention from me. I thought, OK, I think it's a good place for me to make up my mind. And they gave me a really good scholarship. It was almost just like, too good to refuse. Yeah. And where I was at that time with my dreams, I thought, OK, and here I go to Smith College.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah, well, and a wonderful college by every account that I've ever heard. So, but something somewhere in your course at Smith did set you on this course with music. Somehow the spy degree didn't work out so well.

Elim Chan [Laughs] I mean...

Brian McCreath Or it could still. Who knows?

Elim Chan Exactly. I can always change, right? [laughs]

Brian McCreath But what was it at Smith? Was it a particular teacher, was it an experience you had as a musician? What opened your own eyes to your own potential as a musician and decide to pursue that?

Elim Chan Well, first of all, when I got to Smith, I immediately joined the chorus. And, you know, this is sort of after the classes and then I love, I've grown up singing in choirs. So I thought, OK, I would join because it's great. And so very early on I auditioned and the chorus director at the time, Diana Joseph, she said, Oh, you have really good ears. You should be my assistant. And I was a freshman, but I was like, OK, I mean, I had zero music courses at the time. And I thought, Sure, why not? And then I became the assistant of the chorus. And then in the first autumn concert, they said, Well, you should conduct a piece. OK. You know, I have no conducting classes, I've no training, but. OK, I'll try, and I did. And the next thing is then the whole music department was, like, on fire. They all came to me and said, You really should take this seriously, like you should think about this. I was like, Oh, I don't know, it was my first semester. And so I kept on being assistant and they just keep giving me opportunities.

But then the thunderbolt moment was my second year. So that's when I moved onto the, sort of, the older chorus with Jonathan Hirsh, who is still the teacher there, the director. And we were doing Verdi's Requiem. And again, I was assisting, and I studied the piece and before the concert, he said, in the general [rehearsal], he said, Elim, I want to go out and listen to the balance. So can you conduct the Dies irae? All right, you know, and this moment, just really I think it made up my mind, I think I felt literally a thunder, like, you know, split my head, because the moment I was like, of course, the Dies irae from Verdi's Requiem is such a powerful moment in Western music. It's one of these hell gates open, with the bass drum like, you know, pounding. And I remember, I asked the bass drum, louder! It needs to be [roars]. I started rehearsing. I was like, What am I doing? You know? And my teacher is out there, but I forgot about, you know, I just wanted to make it work, make it sound like what Verdi was trying to depict. And yeah, and that moment I was, I just felt it so strongly. My heart was like, Elim, what are you kidding yourself, this is where you want to be and is this it.

Brian McCreath It's hard to imagine another piece that would have fulfilled that in quite the same way. That's really quite a remarkable story. Wow.

Elim Chan Yeah. So it all happened at Smith during those years where, I mean, of course, you know, it also is a place where you really feel trusted, and it really empowered me to just, you know, fight for what you want. And they sort of take away all the obstacles that just, you know, it's there. And actually, Smith has one of the greatest music libraries. I spent so many hours, I think, almost every night before they closed. I got out all these like, you know, CDs and burned them on my computer. I got to know all these things that, I now look back, I thought, dang, I wish I have those things still, you know, the resources. So it's really where it, you know, gave me that first bounce.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah. And then some other really significant things happened. You worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and you worked with the London Symphony. One name that jumps out from your history that we know well here, as many people do around the world, but that would be Bernard Haitink at the Lucerne Festival. And I just wonder what your experience was of working with him. You know, he just recently passed away, but he was so close to the Boston Symphony, throughut these many years.

Elim Chan Yeah, actually. You know, interestingly, the first time I went to Tanglewood - again for the chorus, I was in the program in Tanglewood - and so the first time I saw Bernard Haitink was Tanglewood, Haitink with BSO playing Beethoven Nine. I was on the lawn and I was like, Who is this conductor? You know? And it was also the first time I thought Beethoven Nine was interesting. Because I sort of avoided the piece because the piece was just, you know, one of these monuments that, it became bigger, so big, you know that I was like, Ugh, but is it really good? You know, the piece? And that was the first time I thought it made sense. And then it sort of started me on the road like, who is Bernard Haitink? And I started, sort of become a fan and I got all these recordings. And of course, many of them are from BSO. And then, of course, winning the competition in London also gave me a lot of time to work with Bernard because he was a frequent guest at the London Symphony. But of course, Lucerne was the sort of the, one of the most beautiful life moments I had, to be a student of him. The things that he taught, you know, and the thing is, he's a man with really little words.

Brian McCreath It's true. It's true.

Elim Chan And so the things that he said, each word, you know, I have to write down, I have a notebook because, you know, there's not much. But then when he said something, it's like boom, it's like gold. But the most powerful is when he shows you how it's done. And of course, it's still a mystery. I was like, I can't figure this out, how to do Wagner Liebestod, from Tristan! As a young conductor, this music is really difficult the how to get it going, how to get the long lines. And that is one of Haitink's specialty, forte. He made Bruckner, Wagner, all these become like as if a breath? And I remember he came up to me, he was like, Hmm. You know, Elim, I don't know how to tell you, but let me show you. And I stood next to him, and then he conducted the Liebestod to try to show me. I think after like 10 seconds, I started crying. Because it's all there, it's all there, yet so powerful and emotional, but then it's so economical. And I was standing, you know, I mean, now of course, we can't stand so close together. But at the time I was just next to the podium and I could just feel exactly what he wanted in each moment, and that was just miraculous. And so talking about all this and now to have the chance to be with one of his orchestras, my feeling is, you know, it's... I'm just grateful.

Brian McCreath That's wonderful, that's just terrific. Wow, what a story. And I suppose once you got back on the podium to conduct Liebestod, something had changed for you.

Elim Chan Yes. Absolutely.

Brian McCreath Wonderful. Well, Elim Chen, I'm so glad that you're here. I'm so glad that you're conducting the BSO. And thanks again for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Elim Chan Thank you.

Igor Levit appears courtesy of Sony Classical