At 23, cellist Nathan Chan is the Seattle Symphony’s most recent hire and its youngest player. He was “discovered” as a preschooler, conducting from his seat at the San Francisco Opera.
On a late spring afternoon, Nathan Chan is walking around Benaroya Hall’s backstage with his cello case on his back, looking for a quiet place to have a chat. He’s just finished rehearsal for the day, and the first dressing room he peeks into is occupied by a person who looks a lot like Prince. This is not something you normally see backstage at Benaroya — a Prince tribute was the programming that night — but the same could probably be said for Chan himself.
At 23, and with a small frame and Harry Potter-ish glasses, Chan at first looks like a high-school kid who sneaked into the symphony. But once Chan starts to play, he brings a wide, rich tone, and you can hear why he’s one of conductor Ludovic Morlot’s most exciting recent hires.
Chan got the job as the Seattle Symphony’s third-chair cello in late February, and his public debut was a week later. “My first concert with the Seattle Symphony was the music of Bugs Bunny,” he laughs. “It was magical, though.”
IF YOU GO
• June 13: Chamber group plays works by Smetana, Bach, Janacek and Szymanowski;
• June 15, 17: Principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard leads a program including Strauss’ “Alpine” Symphony;
• June 22-24: Ludovic Morlot conducts Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
Information and tickets: 206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org.
Chan is a young player (as well as being the most recent hire, he’s the SSO’s youngest musician) who fits well with Morlot’s concept of expanding the symphony’s appeal. Chan has his own YouTube channel where he covers pop artists such as Adele and The Beatles on the strings. Several of his videos have over a million views (he also has more standard classical fare up as well, such as Bach and Debussy).
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Chan sees classical music as a living, breathing art form that continues to evolve, and one that can find new audiences. “I’d say my goal is to innovate in the way pop artists would, but to execute at the standard of a classical musician.”
Like most members of the symphony, Chan’s background includes years of training and hard work. His mother is a musician, and he fell for music at a remarkably early age. His résumé includes a gig that is almost too odd to believe, but it’s true: at 3, he conducted the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.
This was a onetime brief piece of work, but it came about because a conductor with the San Francisco Opera observed Chan in the audience at a concert, moving his arms, conducting from his seat. It was something that came to him early on.
“My parents would put this laser disc of classical music on, and I would wave my hands around using chopsticks,” he says.
His interest in the cello came just a bit later, when he was attracted to the low sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth. He took his first cello lesson at 5, but his big break came at 12, and it’s another résumé item that sounds surreal since it involved Carnegie Hall.
He was asked to be part of an HBO film called “The Music in Me,” and that brought him to the historic New York venue. Seeing the audience in that storied hall react to music shifted something in Chan and made him believe that music would be his career. “I realized that perhaps combining music and video into a thing of its own was exceptionally powerful,” he says. “I thought I should do this for the rest of my life.”
From there other opportunities sprang forth. At 13, he recorded with the legendary singer Roberta Flack, at 15 he released his first classical CD, and other honors followed.
He grew up in the Bay Area, but went to college in New York, where he attended a joint program between Columbia and Julliard, so he also has a degree in economics. It was while at Julliard, he says, that he realized that his skill with the cello would be based on “how smart” he practiced as opposed to how many hours he put in.
“There is too much emphasis on repetition in some music education,” he says. He suggests that young players work more on finding tools to solve problems — working on musical challenges — than just striving for perfection.
Still, Chan says, there’s a lot of “blood, sweat and tears” behind every symphony performance. When he’s not playing with the orchestra, Chan is exploring his newfound home in Seattle.
He calls himself a “gadget freak,” and has a deposit down on the Tesla Model 3. He loves social media and Apple products. His iTunes list includes hip-hop (“right now, I’m all about Kendrick Lamar”) and EDM, in addition to Brahms and Bach.
Chan’s musical goal, whether he’s playing with the Seattle Symphony or making a video of “Pokemon Meets Mozart” (at only 14,000 views that one would be one of his least popular productions), is to make a difference with his playing.
“I want to be the person who makes a difference between an incredible performance, and an average one,” Chan says. “You can feel that when it happens. And when it does, it’s just magic.”