Will it be Elim Chan? A potential Dudamel successor makes magic in her L.A. Phil Hollywood Bowl debut



It was a lovely Hollywood Bowl opening night for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Warm day led to a pleasant evening with but a hint of chill in the air. The new parking scheme, with fewer spots and more space for public transportation and rideshare services, seemed to work well.

“Scheherazade” was the main fare. However often Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite has sent ravishing color waves through the Cahuenga Pass over the last century, it sounded brighter and fresher and more alluring than ever, thanks both to the sheer virtuosity of the orchestra and the excellent amplification.

Thanks, too, to Gustavo Dudamel, but only indirectly. For the first time in the 15 seasons that he has been music director, he will not appear at his beloved Bowl until the summer’s final weeks. But it still is his orchestra, and on the podium Tuesday, a former Dudamel Fellow made her Bowl debut.

Elim Chan, who is music director of the Antwerp Symphony in Belgium, may not yet be well known to the general public. That will change. She has just released her first recording with her orchestra, and it is terrific, ending with a ravishing performance of the second suite from Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloé.”

Along with attention-getting invitation to conduct the Bowl opening, Chan can expect exceptional visibility in London next week, when she oversees the first night of the Proms. It is the world’s largest classical music festival and the one with the widest reach, featuring livestreams on BBC Radio 3 of the nightly concerts.

In L.A., Chan’s appearances at Walt Disney Concert Hall have already proved notable. Last year, she got her 15 minutes of unwanted viral fame from her performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the L.A. Phil, when a member of the audience had an audible incident that some attributed to an orgasm. Then in October, her reading of the Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances so excited the orchestra that rumors began circulating that the 36-year-old conductor from Hong Kong was a favorite to become the next music director. Some music business insiders insisted it was already a done deal.

That, of course, remains to be seen. Monday, Kim Noltemy began as the new L.A. Phil president and chief executive, and she is thus far keeping an unusually (for this orchestra) low profile. Nonetheless, Tuesday night was obviously a music director audition of sorts, as will upcoming performances by other potential candidates.

The Hollywood Bowl, however, can be an excellent indicator of greatness or a terrible one. Rehearsal time is typically limited to the morning of the concert. The sound engineers have a say in the instrumental balances we hear. The video can be aid or distraction.

When an unknown 24-year-old Gustavo Dudamel made his U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, we instantly knew. When an unknown 28-year-old Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla made hers nine years later, we instantly knew. But when a little-known Kirill Petrenko made his Bowl debut in 2007, the now greatly admired music director of the Berlin Philharmonic was simply not suited to the venue.

Tuesday night could easily turn out to be another “we knew.” Chan was very much in her element. Opening the program with Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s “subito con forza” (suddenly with power), she needed less than 10 seconds to prove it. The score was commissioned for the Proms in 2020 as tribute to Beethoven, and it opens with the famed compelling beginning of the “Coriolan” overture. The long-held loud C in the strings followed by a sharply attacked staccato chord in the orchestra heralds one of Beethoven’s great calls to attention.

Chin, however, interrupted the action immediately with wildly trembling percussion, squeaky high harmonics in the violins and an ominous low C drone in the cellos. In a dizzying instant, we were transported to a weird, oddly enjoyable, place. Leading the L.A. Phil, Chan pulled this and other trickery that followed like a magician with not only a baton but compellingly expressive fingers and facial gestures that conveyed a sense of wonder.

She took a back seat to Augustin Hadelich, the authoritative soloist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, but once again became a theatrical magic maker with “Scheherazade.” Rimsky offers many instrumental solos. Orchestral musicians love nothing more than to shine. They did. But they also made it sound — and on the big video screens look — personal, as though they were, to a player, voting for her.

Adding to what had already been a very good night for violin, Nathan Cole served as concert master in solos that represent Scheherazade’s entrancing beauty. But in yet more L.A. Phil sea change, Cole will have his first night as the new concertmaster of the Boston Symphony on Friday, when he joins the orchestra at Tanglewood for yet another “Scheherazade” (this one conducted by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons).

Cole, who will share his duties as L.A. Phil first associate concert master with his prestigious new post, is the next step in the Los Angeles Philharmonic-azation of the Boston Symphony, which is run by former L.A. Phil President and CEO Chad Smith. But what that now means is anyone’s guess as the L.A. Phil enters, with little transparency, into uncharted territory.

As a nice first and easy step to indicate that the orchestra must come first, Noltemy might suggest a small change in this year’s Hollywood Bowl program book. Alongside Noltemy’s welcoming note on Page 4 is a highlighted list of the L.A. Phil board members rather than the musician roster, which is buried on Page 60.

An easy second step may have just become evident at the Hollywood Bowl.



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