Musicians of AYO Winter Season Online had the chance to have their questions answered by world renowned conductor, Elim Chan, Chief Conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in an online Q&A hosted by Guy Noble, renowned Australian conductor, presenter, columnist and musical entertainer. In this Q&A special we hear her advice on collaborating as musicians during a crisis, what conductors look for in an orchestra and boxing as a stress reliever.
Guy Noble: I want to talk a little bit about being a female conductor, but I want to ask not how hard it was or all the bad sides, but what a woman can bring to conducting given that women can have slightly different approaches with human relations and group dynamics?
Elim: I recently had a conversation with a younger male colleague of mine, just starting to conduct, who was full of stories of how difficult it is to start as a young conductor. The orchestra is often ready to eat you alive and you get the feeling of going into a battlefield – I tried not to think of it like that! I get asked a lot of questions on how I deal with this situation of feeling like it’s fifty people against one, and I have to say I’m quite fortunate that I’ve never had the intense confrontations. It depends on the personality, but I think females have the soft skills as conductors because I don’t engage in confrontation and I’ll always find ways to work around it.
Guy: I had some great advice years ago and they said, ‘Compliment the player, but criticise the instrument.’ So, if it were something slightly critical it would be oboe, clarinet, bassoon but ‘Gary’, ‘Jeanette’ that was wonderful. I think it’s great at taking the personality away from whatever the criticism was.
Jin Long, viola: What are some ways you think we can make classical music more relevant to the 21st century and how we live?
Elim: I think with everything happening in the world at the moment – there’s social movements and people suffering with the virus – we have a lot of existential questions, myself included. I have these moments where I ask, ‘what do I contribute right now?’.
What it really boils down to is remembering that music is not the only thing in our lives. It helps me to really open up my world because as musicians we tend to have a very small focal point; having to get this one bar perfect, follow this career and get into this conservatory. We all do this, but this whole year has shaken everything up and changed all of our perspectives. I think when you realise music is actually part of the whole art world – there’s theatre, dance, visual arts – and you create things to include more people in conversations, collaborations and using technology, people will really appreciate it.
At the moment I’m having a conversation with two other conductors and we talk about how we can help other conductors, how to program at the moment, and how we can make it more open for others. It’s also a time to get creative in all sorts of ways.
Julia Hill, violin: As you’ve travelled through many countries within your music career, have you noticed any differences in how different cultures approach or perceive classical music?
Elim: It’s different everywhere you go, between Asia, the United States, Europe and Australia. It’s a big question today on how each society is valuing the arts because it also goes onto how much the government supports it. This is coming up a lot quite recently with the lockdown situation as we all struggle in some way.
I often get that question of ‘what do you actually do for life?’ and I say, ‘I’m a musician. Do I need to say more?’ I’ve found I get most of these questions in the U.S and also here in Holland where people have trouble distinguishing between a conductor and a composer. Unfortunately, throughout Asia and Hong Kong where I’m from I think the appreciation is not quite as strong, and you can feel it; then I find when I go to Europe I’ll tend to get less of these questions.
It shows a lot from how audiences approach you, because of course the people who understand and love it will keep coming to concerts and make you realise why you do this.
Phillipa McAuliffe, harp: I read you wanted to study medicine originally, do you ever wish you were a doctor instead?
Elim: I think in the end, no. I was interested in the field of medicine because at the time I wanted to be a coroner. I was so crazy about these CSI shows and I wanted to be part of this team which solves crimes. I have the blood, sweat and tears of the rehearsal room to keep me going!
Guy Noble, conductor: What are your passions or hobbies besides music?
Elim: I do boxing which is something I find so cool. I picked it up in London during a really stressful time when I was at the London Symphony Orchestra every day, cramming so much repertoire for each program. I decided I needed to exercise and do sports, so I tried boxing and to this day I still do this and it’s such a good stress reliever.
Emily Beauchamp, violin: Have you had to learn more languages for your career, and do you think being multi-lingual is important for being a conductor?
Elim: It’s funny because at the moment I’m actually learning Dutch, because I have the time. It’s very important for example, if you want to delve into the opera world you need to know the text, and even with Mahler pieces everything is driven or inspired by the text and knowing the text. You can obviously use translations but if you really speak the languages then at least you can say it yourself. I did one year of German and three years of Italian; even being able to speak the language a little bit suddenly opens that world and gives everything so much more meaning. Of course, nowadays English works universally and many conductors don’t speak more languages but knowing a few phrases is always helpful. I speak English with the Antwerp Symphony but I’m also learning to speak Dutch and getting to know their world.
Will Kinmont, trombone: What are some things you look for in great orchestral musicians when you’re conducting?
Elim: For me when I’ve listened to auditions for example, there are many rounds and the first round has been behind screens, so I actually don’t see them. I don’t know if they’re men or women or how they look, but the first thing that captures me and I want to pass them on is their sound. Even just with the sound itself I can already tell you are someone with imagination, musicality, everything that goes into that. Then of course, you’re telling a story with your playing and you interest me. After you get the job, I can say fix your balance and set your tempo, but I love that you come in with musicality.
Especially with wind players, you’re basically soloists yourselves and I love when you just take over and be musical on your own because I can only inspire you up to a point. These are the kinds of things I’m looking for, someone who can take care of things. I love my trombone section in Antwerp because they’re at the back, they talk to each other, they take a few minutes to practice before or after the rehearsal to fix things and they’re ready to go. There are many things that I can’t fix during a rehearsal and to know they’ve taken care of it; I love that collaboration.