Elim Chan  

Posted by Liam Whitbourn
Wednesday 18th January, 2017

In Conversation with
Elim Chan

AYO NATIONAL MUSIC CAMP 2017

Week 1: Alexander Orchestra conducted by Elim Chan

Saturday 14 January, 4pm
MENDELSSOHN Symphony No.4 Italian

Saturday 14 January, 7.30pm
BEETHOVEN Coriolan: Overture
TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a Rococo Theme


‘It’s a fun piece, a challenging one. It breaks all the boxes.’ Elim Chan is ebullient when she discusses Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4 Italian.

‘It’s like a really good sandwich. The first movement and the last movement are like the pieces of bread. In the middle you have the lusciousness between the strong start and end.’

The Hong Kong-born conductor makes her Australian debut with this concert. Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony was high on the list of pieces she wanted to perform with the Alexander Orchestra.

‘I’m very happy that we can do this here. For youth orchestras sometimes pieces are chosen that are just big and loud. But life is not always that way. This piece has a real spectrum between loud and soft. It pushes their technique and musicality, but Mendelssohn does this with such grace.’

Mendelssohn wrote the symphony in 1832, after a Grand Tour of Europe which included many stops in Italy. In letters home, he wrote ecstatically about his impressions of Italian cities, though he was rather less enthusiastic about Italian orchestras. He was the first to conduct the new work in London the following year.

An understanding of the context surrounding a piece is a crucial element in Elim’s preparation before rehearsing a work with orchestra.

‘I always read about what is happening before I go into a piece, what comes before and what comes after. You need to understand what is going on at the time in the composer’s life... Mendelssohn’s inspiration was Bach, he really revived him. You can hear the way he builds his music, especially in the fugal sections. He evokes an earlier style and there are lots of beautiful singing moments. The melodies are very important.’

That is less the case in Beethoven’s Coriolan: Overture, another piece that Elim was eager to include in her Adelaide programme.

‘Beethoven uses very minimal ideas, and it makes a strong contrast to the Mendelssohn. With these minimal ideas he built a very powerful, concentrated overture. The beginning is already shocking. It is in this middle-period of his career where he starts to develop his own voice.’

While Mendelssohn was inspired by the beauty and history of Italy, Beethoven’s inspiration comes from something altogether more dark and bloody. The Overture was written to complement Heinrich von Collin’s play Coriolan, an adaption of Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, a story of uprising, exile and death.

‘This piece is ultimate tragedy, there is no happy ending. There is some sort of resistance in the music, a feeling that he is always fighting for something. To me that is very human.’

Elim is joined by Artist in Residence Li-Wei Qin to perform Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

It is clear that Tchaikovsky greatly admired Mozart and earlier composers. Despite the title, the theme is not Rococo in origin, but rather a new theme composed in the Rococo style.

‘Tchaikovsky’s piece is interesting because it sounds very early. He’s reflecting the earlier style but it’s so him. His gift for writing beautiful melodies is there.’

The piece is also a chance for Elim to work with her young instrumentalists on the delicate business of accompanying a soloist, something which she considers rewarding on many levels.

‘There are times when the orchestral parts are contrasting, but in this work it is more like a conversation. Most of the time we are accompanying Li-Wei, but in some variations it’s like the orchestra and cello are talking to each other.’

Elim’s axiom is that whatever the era and circumstances of composition, the conductor’s role is to serve the music and uphold the composer’s intentions.

‘As a conductor I have an obligation to be true to the composer,’ she says. ‘A conductor should be the composer’s advocate.’

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any room for interpretative colour. But it does mean that there are limits to the extent of interpretative freedom.

‘I am like a straw and the music is like milk. If the music is a glass of milk and the audience is going to drink it, I don’t want them to taste orange juice. I can add my flavour to it, let’s say if it’s just normal milk I can add a hint of chocolate or strawberry, but in the end it’s still milk. I can’t change it into a completely different thing. That would be horrible. I’m the link between the composer, orchestra and the audience.’

– Liam Whitbourn*

* Words About Music participant at AYO National Music Camp 2017