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Shaping Sound and Time


As a student at Smith, Elim Chan ’09 showed raw talent in conducting. Today, she performs with some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.

Photograph by Simon Pauly


Published April 2, 2024

I first saw Elim Chan ’09 conduct in 2005 during the annual Autumn Serenade concert featuring all the groups in Smith’s choral program. She was a member of the first-year choir, which Smith still had at that point. As the director of orchestral and choral activities at Smith for 27 years, I have learned that when students conduct their peers, things can go in any number of directions. Students who show a lot of promise musically don’t necessarily take to conducting. But Elim made quite an impression. She clearly had a gift for the physical aspect of conducting and a rare confidence level at that age. 

Elim has since become one of the world’s most popular conductors and a critical darling. Reviewing her debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2022, the Boston Classical Review wrote,“Chan was the night’s revelation. As a conductor, she’s the embodiment of the principle that less is more. Like Fritz Reiner or Bernard Haitink, she’s not overly demonstrative on the podium. But her beat is clear, gestures economical, and cues precise. Also, she has an exceptionally sensitive ear.” 

A native of Hong Kong, Elim majored in music at Smith and went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in music from the University of Michigan, where I also did graduate work. In 2014 she was the first female winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, enabling her to spend the 2015–16 season as assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, where she worked closely with Valery Gergiev, before becoming a Dudamel Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She has been unstoppable since then, serving as principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra from 2018 to 2023 and principal conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra since 2019 while maintaining a demanding schedule of guest conductor appearances with top orchestras around the world.

Podium debut

Last April, I flew to Los Angeles, where Elim—who lives in Amsterdam with her musician husband—was appearing as a guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I arranged to meet with her and observe a rehearsal. I had only seen her once since she graduated from Smith: I took some students to watch her rehearse for her debut with the Boston Symphony in 2022.

In many ways, Elim hasn’t changed since she was a student. She’s real, very humble, still possesses a sincere curiosity about the world, and seems eager to learn new things and have new experiences. She’s vivacious, has a great sense of humor, and is the kind of person people want to be around. I can still see her amid the constellation of students who were always in Sage Hall and the Josten Performing Arts Library. But today, instead of heading from Sage to Tyler to grab lunch, we’re in Los Angeles walking together to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where she will rehearse with the L.A. Phil.

As we talk, I hear for the first time the story of her actual debut on the podium. Growing up in Hong Kong, Elim played piano and cello and sang in choral groups. At age 14, she was attending a music camp with her girls high school choir when William Weinert, a legendary choral conductor at the Eastman School of Music, was invited to coach the group. In front of Weinert, Elim’s choir teacher asked her to conduct on the spot. Elim was shocked by the request but up for the challenge. “I thought, ‘OK,’” she says, “I have no idea how to do it—but I did it.” That day, Weinert taught her a little about technique and later sent her a package with a baton and a book on conducting. “I was very moved,” she says, “but as a 14-year-old girl in Hong Kong, I had no idea how to become a conductor, and I loved too many things at that moment. I loved music, but I also loved the sciences.” In the accompanying letter, Weinert wrote, “Keep playing the piano and keep studying.”

Chan conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic last April at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The aha! moment

When Elim arrived at Smith, she planned to major in psychology and keep music as a much-loved side interest. She took a basic conducting class (the only one offered at Smith) but wanted to pursue conducting further, so I worked with her and a few others in a special studies class. She was also invited to join the glee club and chamber singers.

“I took every opportunity I could at Smith to learn about music,” Elim says. “I was constantly in the library. It’s one of the most special collections of books, scores, and facsimiles in the whole world. I would spend hours taking out all these recordings and burning them onto my computer. I would be like, ‘Wow, Mahler! Who is Mahler?’”

In the spring of her sophomore year, we performed two big concerts with the U.S. Naval Academy: one in Annapolis, Maryland, and the second on the Smith campus. Titled “From Tribulation to Triumph,” the concerts featured highlights from some of the most famous pieces of choral orchestral music, like Orff ’s Carmina Burana, Verdi’s Requiem, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Bach’s Magnificat, and Fauré’s Requiem.

Because there were so many shorter pieces, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to invite students to conduct. Undergraduates as a rule rarely get podium time, and I have always felt that one of the reasons students come to Smith is to have the kinds of experiences that are not common elsewhere.

So, Elim conducted “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem, some of the most exciting three minutes of any music in existence. She said that once she heard all the pieces together, she realized she wasn’t going to become a psychologist. “That was it,” she says. “That was the moment, standing in front of a huge chorus, big orchestra, and of course the ‘Dies Irae’ is one of the most powerful and iconic musical pieces. My whole core was shaken, and a voice in my head told me I was exactly where I needed to be.”

Making a mark

Back at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Elim is rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s a fantastic piece of music. According to a bass player I spoke with, the L.A. Phil has performed it more than any other piece with music director Gustavo Dudamel. That can make it difficult for a guest conductor because the orchestra has a particular interpretation of the work in its fingers. Elim was undoubtedly familiar with their version of the piece, knew how they would do it, and let them do their thing. But then, little by little, she asked them to play slightly softer here and make a bigger crescendo there—small but effective tweaks that dramatically change the delivery of the piece. Over the course of four rehearsals, she put her mark on it. 

“Many people ask what I do as a conductor,” Elim says. “Most of the work is done in the rehearsals. You have 80 to 100 very experienced musicians, and you need someone to give them a vision to unify their talents. I can influence them each moment. I’m influencing the present and always preparing for the next moment. It’s a unique position because it’s like I can shape time in a way.”

The concert on April 28, 2023, was a resounding success and received an instant standing ovation. It gained some notoriety because of reports that a woman in the audience loudly climaxed during the second movement. The Los Angeles Times reported, “Silver Lake resident and music agent Lukas Burton said the sound from the audience member was ‘wonderfully timed’ to a ‘romantic swell’ in the symphony.”

Chan rehearses with the orchestra. “Many people ask what I do as a conductor,” she says. “Most of the work is done in the rehearsals.”

Knowing when to put down the baton

How has Elim defied all odds and become a successful conductor? Her baton technique is clear and expressive, reflecting one of the fundamental principals of conducting: Try to talk as little as possible and communicate with the baton, hands, face, and body. 

She is also known for the freedom and space she allows musicians. But most notable is the fact that her passion for the music envelops the orchestra and the audience.

“I have to feel like my hands are actually touching the sound waves so I can mold them,” Elim says. “Sometimes I feel like the baton is in my way. The baton is great, especially with a big orchestra; you need a focal point. But for some music, at some point, I put the baton down because that’s when I feel like I can just give a hug to the whole orchestra. You can hug the sound. I feel like sometimes the music is wrapping around my arms. It creates this resistance like when you swim. It feels like the music is around you. I try to convey this and shape each moment with the orchestra.”

Pondering the future

Calling it “bittersweet,” Elim ends her tenure as principal conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra later this year. She led the orchestra through COVID and vividly remembers tears in the musicians’ eyes when they were allowed to finally play to a live audience of a hundred. “We were on tour, and the last stop we played before COVID shut everything down was in Russia,” she says. “We played in the Grand Hall of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonia. Now, I can’t even imagine when I will be in Russia again, because the world has changed.” 

Elim is booked through 2026 but is thinking about changes she would like to make in her approach to being a conductor. “Where do I want to spend my time and energy?” she asks. “Climate change and reducing carbon footprints are a big issue for traveling artists. Do I really need to tour all over the world? Do I travel with a full orchestra? It may be better to cultivate an appreciation for the arts in a local community. Instead of spending a week in one place, maybe spend two weeks to get to know the people. Maybe I take on more longterm projects, such as a new partnership I started with the youth program of an orchestra in Spain. Over the next three years, we will look at all three Stravinsky ballets. It’s a goal we are exploring together, and we can watch these young musicians grow over the three years.” 

Chasing transcendence

I’m thrilled that Elim has had so much success, and I’m incredibly proud of her. If students say to me, “I want to go into music,” I feel like my first responsibility is to try to convince them that they should do something else because jobs are limited, especially in conducting. But some students can’t imagine themselves doing anything but music; they simply must give it a shot. I coach these students—students like Elim—by giving them as many opportunities as I can.

“Being a conductor is one of the coolest and craziest jobs ever,” she says. “There are still not many women in it, but it’s getting better. It’s one of the most fulfilling, rewarding things I think a human can do. How many concerts are there in a lifetime where you truly felt something special has happened? You should be able to count those moments on one hand because they don’t happen often. But when they happen, it feels transcendental. When they happen, it cancels out all the hardships, all the existential crises, and all the tears. And I think that is something that I chase after.” 

Jonathan Hirsh is a senior lecturer and the director of orchestral and choral activities at Smith. Cheryl Dellecese is a senior editor at Smith. 

Story photos by Christina Gandolfo