In 2007, for the first time in history, a woman (Marin Alsop) was appointed music director of a top 25 orchestra in the United States. Though there is a long way still to go, today’s stages are richer because these pioneering conductors are on them, leading performances that impact communities and change lives.
Here are 10 conductors you should know…. who just so happen to be women.
Odaline de la Martínez
Odaline de la Martínez (1949 –) is a Renaissance woman of the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition to being a renowned conductor, Martínez is a composer, record producer, record label founder, and event curator. As a conductor, Martínez was the first woman to conduct a BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, and has appeared frequently with leading orchestras around the world: from the Natal Philharmonic in South Africa to the Radio-Television Orchestra of Brazil, all of the BBC orchestras, and more.
Her work in general skews towards the promotion of historically underplayed and ignored composers. She has founded her own group – The Lontano ensemble – to prioritize contemporary composers’ works; the biennial London Festival of American Music, another project spearheaded by Martínez, focuses on the promotion of American composers in Europe. She also curated Juilliard’s 2020 FOCUS Festival of Trailblazer Woman Composers, founded the classical label LORELT, and has recorded over 40 CDs. What’s more, the prolific Martínez has also enjoyed success in the world of composition. Her opera trilogy Imoinda: A Story of Love and Slavery was commissioned by the Caribbean Women Writers’ Alliance of the United Kingdom (CWWA) and premiered at the 7th London Festival of American Music in 2019. Other compositions include works for solo instruments, larger chamber ensembles, orchestral combinations, and even electronic instruments.
JoAnn Falletta (born 1954) is one of the most decorated female conductors of our time. She has won numerous ASCAP Awards, most notably the Adventurous Programming Award for her work with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. During the Bush and Obama administrations, Falletta served as a member of the National Council for the Arts by presidential appointment. She was named Classical Woman of the Year by Performance Today in 2019, as well as one of the “50 Great Conductors” by Gramophone Magazine. In the recording world, Falleta has become a leading recording artist for Naxos with over 120 titles, and winning two Grammys: one for Best Classical Compendium (Fuchs: Piano Concerto ‘Spiritualist’; Poems Of Life; Glacier; Rush) and the other for Best Choral Performance (for Danielpour: The Passion Of Yeshua.)
Her diverse body of work has caused Falletta to be hailed as “one of the leading forces for music in our time” by ASCAP. She has premiered over 600 works by American composers during her career, including over 150 world premiers. She retired from her position as music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in 2020 after 20 years of service. Currently, Falletta acts as the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, principal guest conductor of the Brevard Music Center, and artistic advisor of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Sharing the stage with Beyoncé is a remarkable accomplishment for any performer, not least a classical conductor. Yet, that is exactly what Anne Lundy (born 1954) has done. Lundy and the Scott Joplin Chamber Orchestra were asked to perform the National Anthem with Beyonce at 2004’s Super Bowl XXXVIII, a moment made even more special because of the nature of the orchestra. Lundy had formed the Scott Joplin Chamber Orchestra in 1983 as a predominantly African American group focused on increasing the representation of Black artists in classical music. Now, it is one of the oldest ensembles of its kind in the United States.
Lundy is also the founder and violinist of the William Grant Still Quartet. In 1989, she became the first African American woman to conduct the Houston Symphony, and has served as the Music Director of the Community Music Center of Houston since 1983. Channeling her background as an ethnomusicologist, Lundy has also published many articles about classical music composed by Black Americans.
Marin Alsop (born 1956) can be described as a woman of many firsts. She was one of the first women to serve as the head of a major orchestra in the United States (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), and one of the first women to conduct orchestras in the UK, South America, and Austria. She was the first (and to this date, only) conductor to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Her conducting work led her to also serve as chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She’s even collaborated with institutions of learning to create programs centered on mentoring young women conductors: first by sponsoring the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship in 2002, and later by co-founding the National Orchestra Institute & Festival with the University of Maryland. In guest appearances dating back to the early 2000s, Alsop has built a deep connection to the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, becoming the festival’s chief conductor and curator in the 2020 season. Her work has paved the way for more women to enjoy a career in conducting today.
Jeri Lynne Johnson
Jeri Lynne Johnson (born 1972) has made inclusivity a cornerstone of her career. She is the founder and artistic director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, a group whose mission is to combine “artistic excellence with cultural diversity and innovative community engagement.”The ensemble has performed all over the United States, enjoyed recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, and is the only organization in the country to be awarded three Knights Arts Challenge grants: a grant given to organizations initiating fantastic arts programs & community around the arts in Akron, Detroit or Miami. Johnson is also the founder of DEI Arts Consulting: a firm that helps cultural institutions create inclusive spaces, and diversify their programs. Johnson has also enjoyed success leading orchestras all around the world, including the Bournemouth Symphony (UK), Weimar Staatskapelle (Germany), Chicago Opera Theater, and Orquestra Filarmonica de la UNAM (Mexico).
Mei-Ann Chen (born 1973) is one of Chicago’s most celebrated conductors. She has led the famed Chicago Sinfonietta since 2011, carrying on the ensemble’s focus on diverse, contemporary repertoire and community engagement. Between 2010 and 2016, Chen simultaneously served as the conductor for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. A trailblazer, she became the first female Asian conductor to be named chief conductor of an Austrian orchestra (the Grosses Orchester Graz at Styriate), was the first woman since 1965 to win first place at the Malko Competition in 2005, and has performed with over 110 orchestras worldwide to date. In addition to her engagement with the Chicago Sinfonietta, Chen has served as the artistic director & conductor for the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival since 2016.
Conducting in one’s country’s leading Opera House could seem like a daunting debut- but it was one that Xian Zhang (born 1973) used to her advantage. Her conducting debut at the age of 20 was at the Beijing Central Opera House (now the Opera House of National Grand Theater Beijing) in a production of Le nozze di Figaro. From that point on, Zhang has garnered the opportunity to conduct groups all over the world with ensembles from London’s Royal Philharmonic to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Zhang was appointed principal Guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra & The Chorus of Wales from 2016 to 2019, the first woman to hold a titled position with any BBC orchestra. After a very successful run as music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi from 2009 to 2016, Zhang accepted a music director position with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, where she is currently in contract through the 2023-24 season. In addition to her orchestral stature, Zhang is in high demand in the opera world, performing with leading companies like the NCPA Beijing Opera (2020), the Santa Fe Opera (2020), and the Metropolitan Opera (2024).
Alondra de la Parra
Alondra de la Parra (born 1980) has always been passionate about the intersection of music and culture. At the age of 23, she founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra predominantly focused on promoting Latin American composers. In addition to this orchestra, de la Parra frequently develops programming for public schools to educate students about diversity in classical music. As a conductor, De La Parra has led over 100 orchestras, including prestigious ensembles like the Orchestre de Paris, London Philharmonic Orchestra, and São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. She was the first Mexican woman to conduct in New York City, served as the music director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra from 2017 to 2020, and was appointed Cultural Ambassador of Mexico.
Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya (born 1986) made headlines in 2021 when, just 3 days after giving birth, she returned to the Chicago Opera Theater to conduct the group’s final performance of Becoming Santa Claus. This resilience has become one of the defining characteristics of Yankovskaya’s musical approach. She was named 2020 Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune for her creative opera performances before and during the course of the pandemic, including the world premiere of Dan Shore’s Freedom Ride at COT. Her role as the company’s music director also makes her one of only two women in the United States presently directing a major opera company.
In addition to her work with the COT, Yankovskaya has founded the Refugee Orchestra Project, an organization dedicated to uplifting the voices of refugees around the world through music. Yankovskaya has shared that she was inspired to create the project by her own childhood experiences as a refugee fleeing to the United States. In high demand in concert halls and lecture halls around the world, Yankovskaya has conducted more than 40 world premieres to date.
Panamanian-American Kalena Bovell is already making waves in the classical world. Her conducting debut occurred in 2015 as the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Conducting fellow, which consequently led to her an assistant conductor position with the group for their 2016-2017 season. In 2021, she led the Chineke! Orchestra at the BBC Proms. She is the 2022-2024 awardee of the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship. All of these accomplishments are made even more impressive by the fact that Bovell’s first private music lesson came at the age of 18! Bovell is currently the assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the Memphis Youth Symphony. In addition to conducting, Bovell is a published poet and sought-after public speaker.