Conductors are not something you hear about every day, but they are the people responsible for orchestrating the music. They interpret the notes that the composer has laid out and make sure everyone is on the same page and playing together as one unit. It takes a lot of skill to be able to do this!
Many people think it’s just the same as pressing play on a CD and waving your arms around. However, there are many different types of conductors in the world who all add their own special touch to an orchestra.
In this post, we’ll take a look at 18 of the most famous conductors in classical music from the last 100 or so years. Let’s jump in with one of the greatest of all time… Sir Simon Rattle.
1. Sir Simon Rattle
Considered one of the greatest conductors of all time, Sir Simon Rattle is an English conductor born in Liverpool in 1955.
He first became a critical darling during his time at the helm of the City of Birmingham City Orchestra from 1980 to the late 90s.
In the ’90s, Rattle went on to helm several of the world’s foremost orchestras, earning accolades and a reputation as the most competent conductor in the world leading the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra,
Interestingly, Sir Simon Rattle is a former world record holder, having conducted the world’s largest orchestra of 4000 members to raise awareness for youth music education.
2. Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler is remembered as the preeminent conductor of the late 19th century. He earned his reputation as the chief conductor of the Hamburg Stadttheater, becoming famous for his skills in a relatively period.
As director of music at the Hofoper, Mahler cemented his status as the best conductor in the Austrian Empire.
He also became well-known for his compositions later in his career, particularly his symphonies, but was initially only recognized for his skills as a conductor.
3. Herbert von Karajan
Famous for conducting his orchestras with his eyes closed, Herbert von Karajan was one of the most accomplished conductors of the 20th century.
Born to a Macedonian-Greek family in Austria, Karajan was quickly recognized as a piano prodigy.
While his legacy and career are still divisive to this day, Karajan’s performances were praised across the political divide.
Some of his most famous recordings include Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1-9 and his rendition of Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
4. Leonard Bernstein
A legendary conductor and composer of the 20th century, Leonard Bernstein was born in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
While best known for composing hit Broadway musical West Side Story, he’s also remembered for his famous performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 at the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Notably, Bernstein was the first American conductor to lead a major American orchestra, cementing his place as the most important conductor in U.S. history thus far.
5. Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop is the first woman to lead a major American orchestra as Baltimore City Orchestra’s music director.
Born in 1956 to an accomplished family of New York City musicians, the talented young Alsop attended Yale and graduated with a Master’s from Juilliard.
Among her many positions, Alsop has also served as the principal conductor of the Colorado Symphony, the music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and the music director of the Eugene Symphony in Oregon.
6. Arturo Toscanini
Regarded as the most significant Italian conductor at the turn of the 20th century, Arturo Toscanini led quite the interesting life.
Trained from an early age to play the cello, he went on to tour South America as an associate conductor before returning to Italy to claim his fame.
Due to his extraordinary command of a wide range of works, Toscanini was appointed head of a few noteworthy orchestras, including La Scala Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
7. Georg Solti
George Solti is a Hungarian-born conductor who escaped Nazi Germany to England and subsequently Switzerland during WWII.
He worked under Arturo Toscanini for a time and is considered to be one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.
Solti is remembered for the fiery performances of his youth, performing with a passion rarely seen these days.
He served as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among other respected posts.
8. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Joseph Bologne was a classical French composer born during the mid 18th century. The son of an African planter and a French member of Parliament, Bologne had a challenging upbringing, to say the least.
Although his peers wrongfully challenged Bologne’s conducting ability based on his heritage, his talent proved them otherwise.
More widely known for his violin compositions and concert performances, Saint-Georges was also an accomplished conductor, almost unheard of for a person of color in those days.
9. Seiji Ozawa
After breaking two fingers during a rough rugby match, Seiji Ozawa shifted his focus from piano to conducting. He moved to the United States to pursue a career in it.
He helmed major American orchestras like the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he worked as music director for 29 years.
Ozawa has been the recipient of several awards throughout his lifetime, including a Grammy Award in 2016 for Best Opera.
10. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Considered the most popular Russian composer of all time, most people don’t know that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was also an accomplished conductor.
During the late 1880s, Tchaikovsky’s infrequent periods of success as a composer started to wear on him.
He started conducting to pay the bills and overcome his stage fright, and his performances were critically acclaimed throughout Russia and Europe.
However, Tchaikovsky never fully focused on conducting over composing, and his piano compositions are still some of the most respected pieces ever written to date.
11. Carlos Kleiber
Carlos Kleiber was an Austrian conductor born in 1930 in Berlin to an American and a famous Austrian conductor.
Kleiber is considered one of the greatest conductors to have ever lived, and the greatest Austrian conductor hands-down.
Little is known about Kleiber’s personal life, as he refused to give interviews, having given only one in his entire life. However, his conducting credits speak for themselves.
He’s made several recordings, all of which are well-regarded in the concert world.
12. Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel is a rising star in the global conducting community.
Born in Venezuela, Dudamel currently serves as the music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, and the Opera National de Paris.
Dudamel has performed in many concert halls throughout Europe and the Americas and is considered one of today’s greatest young conductors.
Most recently, Dudamel conducted the orchestra for recordings of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021).
13. Alondra de la Parra
Alondra de la Parra is one of the most respected conductors still performing today.
She was born in Mexico and takes her Latinx heritage global to concert halls around the world.
She typically only performs pieces written by Latin-American composers to spotlight her under-recognized but very talented musical community.
Alondra de la Parra also served as the first-ever music director of an Australian orchestra, extremely noteworthy for someone who isn’t even Australian.
14. Neville Marriner
Sir Neville Marriner is a famous English conductor who founded the world-famous Academy of St. Marten in the Fields music school.
Not only that, but he was also a founder of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, another well-respected group in the United States.
Marriner had one of the longest careers in conducting history, consistently performing into his 90s.
He was the oldest conductor of a Proms concert in 2014 at age 90, but he never missed a beat.
15. JoAnn Falletta
Born in Queens, New York City, in 1954, JoAnn Falletta is a multiple Grammy award-winning conductor with several accolades under her belt.
She’s conducted over a hundred different orchestras in North America and even more in Europe, cementing her as one of the hardest working conductors alive today.
Notably, Falletta was the first American and first female conductor to helm the storied Ulster Orchestra from 2010 to 2014.
She was also appointed to the National Council of Arts by President George W. Bush in 2008 and served until 2012.
16. Igor Stravinsky
Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky was an accomplished conductor, composer, and pianist well-known during the early and mid 20th century.
Eventually, he went on to hold French and American citizenship.
Stravinsky is much better known for his compositions but was well-regarded by American and French classical music purveyors for his skill as a conductor.
He’s performed at famed institutions like Carnegie Hall in New York City and led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well.
17. Daniel Barenboim
Daniel Barenboim is an internationally acclaimed pianist and conductor born in Argentina in 1942.
He became quite famous for his piano skills from a young age, but his conducting cemented his legacy later in life.
Barenboim is somewhat of a jack of all trades, able to play and conduct opera, concerts, and orchestral performances like they were the same.
He’s served as music director for several noteworthy concert halls, including for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
18. André Previn
Another exceptional conductor with talents in several areas of music is André Previn, a German-born American pianist from Berlin originally.
He’s served as music director for the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the lead conductor for the London Symphony Orchestra, and the chief conductor of the Royal Philharmonic.
Previn also had his hands in several Hollywood projects, making him slightly more diverse than some of his contemporaries.
He appeared on television, conducted live recordings, and even scored for television.
Summing up our List of the Greatest Orchestra Conductors
If you love classical music and want to know more about the world of conductors, we hope this article has helped you learn more about some of the greatest conductors of the last 100 years or so.
Although on the surface it might seem like the conductor doesn’t really do that much but it’s amazing to listen to the same piece of music being conducted by different conductors.
You’ll then see how much of a difference they make on the music and you’ll be surprised.