Four Female Conductors You Should Know
Every orchestra in the world has one, and yet few orchestras are led by women. Meet four female conductors who are not only leading orchestras but paving the way for the next generation of maestras.
Conductors are essential to an orchestra. They help musicians play in unison, shape the music, and aid the orchestra in interpreting the composer’s work as a cohesive unit. Every orchestra in the world has one, and yet few orchestras are led by women. Sexism in the classical music world has excluded women from conducting for centuries, but that hasn’t stopped passionate women from leading orchestras. According to Bachtrack’s annual survey, in 2013 only one of the world’s top 100 conductors was female, as of 2022 there are now 12 women on that esteemed list.
Meet four female conductors who are not only leading orchestras but paving the way for the next generation of maestras.
- First female Chief Conductor in history to lead a major American orchestra
- First female conductor to conduct the Last Night of PROMS
- First woman to win the Koussevitzky Prize for conducting
- First woman to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship
- First female Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
- First female conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra
- First female Chief Conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop conducts and speaks in the documentary Maestras
If Alsop isn’t on your list of heroes yet, she should be. Alsop was always a smart cookie. She first attended Yale to study mathematics but transferred to Julliard after just 15 months to study Violin. After failing three times to be accepted into their conducting program Alsop took conducting into her own hands and formed her own jazz group String Fever (1981) and the Concordia Orchestra (1984). After conducting orchestras all over the world, Alsop made history in 2007 when she became the first woman appointed to lead a major American orchestra as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director. She broke the record again in 2013 when she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the BBC PROMS, and in that same year, she was the only woman to make the list of top 100 conductors.
When Alsop retired as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2021, the top 25 orchestras in the United States were once again, all led by men. Alsop is working to change that with her Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship (TACF) where young female conductors get support and mentorship under the leadership of Alsop herself. She’s also the Professor and Director of the Graduate Conducting Program at the Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University. Oh, and did we mention she started OrchKids, a year-round music program designed to create social change and nurture promising futures for youth in Baltimore City neighborhoods? Talk about impressive!
- Gramophone Artist of the Year 2022
- Principal Guest Conductor at the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
- Associate Artist at The London Symphony Orchestra
- Known for conducting and singing AT THE SAME TIME!
Barbara Hannigan sings and conducts in the documentary Taking Risks
Barbara Hannigan is a Canadian singer, conductor, and contemporary music queen. When she was just 17 years old she made her operatic debut in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, igniting her lifelong passion for contemporary music. To date, Hannigan has premiered more than 80 contemporary works.
In 2010 Hannigan decided to try her hand at conducting and fell in love with the craft, noting that, “Performance anxiety doesn’t happen when I conduct. I get a kind of parental feeling; while when I’m singing, I feel like a scared child.” In 2011 she made a conducting debut to beat all conducting debuts when she simultaneously sang and conducted Ligeti’s crazed “Mysteries of the Macabre,” in Paris. Since her conducting premier Hannigan has conducted all over the world. In 2022 she was awarded Artist of the Year at the Gramophone Awards and was named the London Symphony Orchestra’s Associate Artist.
Like Alsop, Hannigan is on a mission to inspire and support the next generation of great musicians and performers. In 2020 she founded Momentum Now, a nonprofit that pairs young performers with professional mentors.
- First female Cheif Conductor of Radio Filharmonisch Orkest
- First female Principal Guest Conductor of the RSO Berlin
- First female conductor to conduct the First Night of PROMS
- First female conductor to conduct the Nobel Prize concert with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
- Fist female Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Karina Canellakis conducts Beethoven’s Eroica with the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Karina Canellakis is an American conductor who has become internationally known for emotionally charged and vibrant performances. She began her career as a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchester-Akademie. There, she met Sir Simon Rattle who encouraged her interest in conducting, which eventually led to Julliard where she studied conducting. She quickly proved just how talented she is. In 2014, at the age of just 33, she stepped in as an emergency replacement for Jaap van Zweden, conducting Shostakovich’s demanding 8th Symphony with less than 24 hours’ notice and without rehearsal. The concert was a massive success and earned Canellakis well-deserved praise. This wasn’t the only time Canellakis swooped in to save the day. The following year she made her European debut with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe when she stepped in as Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s emergency replacement.
It’s no wonder she has become one of the most in-demand conductors of her generation. In 2018 she made history when she was appointed Chief Conductor of Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, making her the first-ever female conductor to lead a Dutch orchestra. In the same year, she became the first female conductor to conduct the annual Nobel Prize concert with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. But she didn’t stop there. In 2019 she became the first female Principal Guest Conductor of the RSO Berlin and the first female conductor to conduct the First Night of The PROMS, then in 2020, she became the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s first female Principal Guest Conductor.
- First female General Music Director of the Theater Erfurt
- Youngest conductor in Europe to become General Music Director of Theater Erfurt
- First female General Music Director of the Staatstheater Nürnberg
- First female Chief Conductor & Artistic Director of Konzerthausorchester Berlin
Joana Mallwitz conducts in the documentary Maestras
Joana Mallwitz is a German conductor and pianist known for brilliant opera conducting. Her passion for music started young when she began violin lessons at just 3 years old. Not to be outdone by Canellakis, she made her conducting debut with just 6 hours’ notice when she stepped in to conduct the opening night of Theater und Orchester Heidelberg’s Madama Butterfly. Talk about terrifying. In 2014 she became the first female conductor in history to be named General Music Director of the Theater Erfurt, which at just 28 years old, also made her the youngest GMD of a German opera house. In 2017 she became the first female conductor to be named GMD of Staatstheater Nürnberg, and in 2021, you guessed it, she became the first female conductor to be named chief conductor and artistic director of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin.
These women are nothing short of impressive. Their long list of achievements may look easy on paper, but these women have had to overcome prejudices and sexist institutions on top of the difficulty that conducting presents in itself. You can learn more about how these women in the documentary Maestras: The Long Journey of Women to the Podium.