When we think of conductors leading orchestra in our favorite operas or symphonies our mind might be drawn to the image of an older gentleman with gray hair flailing his arms about. Admit it, when you first think of a conductor our image isn’t too far from what popped into your head. Well, this is the 21st century and women are top CEO’s of companies, they run for president, and yes, they conduct operatic orchestras.

In an area of the arts that has been indisputably dominated by men, we wanted to look at some contemporary female conductors we think you should know about.


JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn is a well-known and respected female conductor.

JoAnn Falletta, by Cheryl Gorski Photography.

To start our list of female conductors, we introduce you to JoAnn Falletta, who was born in New York and attended the Mannes College of Music as well as Juilliard. In the earlier part of her career, Falletta was a guitar and mandolin player of expert level. She was regularly invited to play with the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic.

At the age of eighteen, she started at Mannes with intention of furthering her studies with the guitar but started conducting her first year there. Falletta had opposition due to her gender but she didn’t let that stop her. She continued to Queens College earning a Master’s in Art in orchestral conducting and then eventually Juilliard.

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra appointed Falletta as their eleventh musical director in 1991 and is still there and serving as the director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. With this busy schedule, she still finds the time to guest conduct with some of the world’s top orchestras.

Falletta has won two Grammys out of her ten nominations. The most recent recording that can be found by Falletta is The Soldier’s Tale by Stravinsky. She was recently elected to be a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Xian Zhang

This next conductor was born in Dandong, Liaoning in 1973 and started her training in music when just a child. Her first teacher was her mother, who educated Zhang on how to play the piano. The piano on which they played was built by Zhang’s father.

When she grew, Zhang continued her education in Beijing at the Central Conservatory of Music. While there she earned a bachelor’s and master’s in conducting. At the age of nineteen Zhang made her conducting debut with the China National Opera Orchestra with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. From there she worked as the conductor for the China Opera House as well as the Jinfan Symphony Orchestra.

In 1998 this Chinese-American conductor came to the United States. Zhang continued her education at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. While there she conducted the Concert Orchestra for the University. The New York Philharmonic is another prestigious organization in which Zhang served as conductor. There is no doubt that this woman is driven to dominate a male dominated field.

In 2005 she went on to the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra where she would serve as music director. Zhang was the first woman to conduct the German orchestra Staatskapelle Dresden, which was founded in 1548.

Zhang has been appointed as the Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for the 2016/17 season after serving as the Music Director for the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi for the past few years. She guest conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.


Andrea Quinn

Studying with Colin Metters, George Hurst, and John Carewe, Andrea Quinn trained under these greats at The Royal Academy of Music. When she completed her studies, she was awarded the Ernest Read and the Ricordi Conducting prizes for her achievements. From there she moved on to Hungary when she won the NAYO Conductor’s Bursary.

She was awarded the Royal Ballet Company’s “Conduct for Dance” competition which put her on a road toward conducting for the dance. Since then she has conducted performances for the Dutch National Ballet, the Swedish Royal Ballet, the New Zealand Ballet, and the English National Ballet.

French orchestras she’s conducted for include the L’ensemble de Paris, L’Orchestre Ile de France, and Opera de Rouen. Quinn has also conducted American orchestras like the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, and the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.

Quinn has also dabbled in operatic conducting with productions of Aida with Malmo Opera, The Flying Dutchman with Norrlands Operan, and The Merry Widow with Opera North. Touching more on pop-culture, Quinn conducted a work for Paul McCartney with the London Symphony Orchestra and received a nomination for Female Artist of the year at the first Classic Brit Awards given by the British Phonographic Industry.


Marin Alsop

Born in New York into a musical family Marin Alsop got her first professional education from the Masters School, a private boarding school in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Yale University was her next stop but she wouldn’t stay long transferring to the Juilliard School where she earned two degrees in violin. In 1989 she was given the Koussevitzky Prize for student conductor. The latter award is from the Tanglewood Music Center and it was here where Alsop studied with Leonard Bernstein.

In 2007 she was appointed the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and has made her tenure there legendary. So much so they extended her tenure twice and she is confirmed to that position until 2021. While serving in this position, Alsop focused on creating new directions that have directly impacted the reach the arts have had on larger groups.

Alsop is the founder of ‘OrchKids’, an organization that educates the neediest of Baltimore’s youth with instruments, meals, and musical mentorship. Initiatives like the BSO Academy and Rusty Musicians enable adult musicians that have not played professionally an opportunity to play with her orchestra.  

The only conductor to win the MacArthur Fellowship to recognize her creative contribution, Alsop was in an article celebrating 2011’s International Women’s Day listed as of the Guardian’s “Top 100 Women.” She has won copious awards and was named an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Notable guest conducting performances include Orchestre de Paris, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, the Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras. Alsop has performed with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, La Scala, and the Czech Philharmonic. She has conducted in London and pretty much everywhere you can think of.

We thank these four musical women for paving the way for the young girls of today who love to wave a baton.

How about we shift gears a bit? Click here to learn more about these 8 obscure opera composers.

PS: March was Women’s History Month! Take a look at how Cennarium honored women’s accomplishments in the performing arts with 3 select streamed shows!

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