Elim Chan
Elim Chan | Credit: Simon Pauly

Elim Chan, the 36-year-old conductor from Hong Kong, made news when she conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic last May, but not in the way she likely anticipated.

As the romantic slow movement of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was progressing from climax to climax under Chan’s command, many thought they heard a woman in the audience loudly reaching a climax of her own during a brief silence in the score. A snippet of audio from that moment went viral on the web — it inspired several quips about Tchaikovsky’s continued ability to arouse passion 130 years after his death.

It’s possible that Chan’s performance then also rocketed her into the pool of candidates to succeed Gustavo Dudamel as the LA Phil’s next music director. She’s young (though not as young as the last two music directors when they started out here). Her beat with her right arm is firm and lively, her left hand has good control over dynamic levels, and she seems to be able to get the Phil to play out with fervor — sometimes, a bit too much fervor. A few members of the orchestra have said that they were very impressed with her the last time around.

Jessie Montgomery
Jessie Montgomery’s Coincident Dances opened the program | Credit: Jiyang Chen Photography

In the meantime, Chan made a return visit to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday afternoon (Oct. 15), giving audiences and the orchestra’s musicians a good look at what she can do with a program tilted toward the 20th century.

For starters, we heard another entry from Jessie Montgomery, who, in the last three or four years, has suddenly become one of the most-performed living composers. Montgomery says that her 2017 piece Coincident Dances was partly inspired by a walk through a New York neighborhood, during which she heard R&B on a set of headphones mixed with Latin jazz playing from a parked car.

The piece starts with a double bass solo, after which Montgomery’s usual neoclassical string engines get going. There are some interesting dialogues among the winds; a bass clarinet plays an ostinato pattern that’s eventually taken up by the tuba. But the anticipated collisions of style (which Charles Ives would have understood) don’t materialize until near the end, when a Latin groove emerges, at which point the piece turns into a noisy jamboree. Good stuff, worth hearing again.

Igor Levit
Igor Levit | Credit: Felix Broede

Then, pianist Igor Levit — whose rise in visibility during the pandemic paralleled Montgomery’s — played George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, which is somewhat off-center for him. The contrast between what Chan was doing with the orchestra and what Levit was doing on the keyboard couldn’t have been greater. Chan and the orchestra entered with a nicely jumpy sis-boom-bah treatment of the Charleston rhythm that opens the piece, but everything went limp when Levit came in. When the piano part was supposed to swing, Levit stubbornly wouldn’t. When the music was supposed to be loud, Levit pounded it out, while in the soft sections he meandered slowly and self-consciously. Chan, meanwhile, often whipped up the extroverted passages to a nearly deafening degree. Bottom line: This was a mismatched collaboration.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s final orchestral composition, Symphonic Dances, came around for the third time at Disney Hall in just the last two years, a remarkable uptick in frequency for a piece that was once a rarity. Chan proved herself up to the challenge posed by Susanna Mälkki’s and Dudamel’s recent renditions here. She and the orchestra delivered an exciting performance, with whomping fortissimos framing a graceful central section in the opening dance, a swaying curvature to the waltz tempos of the second movement, and suspense, eloquence, and a razzmatazz ending to the third movement.

The Phil must know this score pretty well by now, and the players sounded especially enthused on this occasion. Afterward, virtually the entire string section rattled their bows on their music stands during the curtain calls — usually a sign that they’re pleased with their guest on the podium. We’ll see what happens.