13 Of The Most Famous Female Conductors You Should Know

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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Like all women in any industry, female conductors have worked hard to make their way to the top. Still, conducting is a male-dominated area of music. 

According to a report released by the League of American Orchestras, women made up only 14.6 percent of U.S orchestra conductors. The same report found that women were represented even less in the most prestigious conductor positions. 

Since the first woman, Antonia Brico, became a formally recognized conductor in the 20th century, more women have become conductors. In this post, we will look at 13 famous female conductors to observe how they revolutionized the music profession. 

1. Antonia Brico

As stated, Antonia Brico was the first woman to become widely recognized as a leading figure in conducting orchestras. Born in the Netherlands in 1902, Brico migrated to California as a young girl in 1908.

A talented musician and pianist, Brico spent her education studying music at Berkeley and became the first American citizen to graduate with a Master’s degree from the Berlin State Academy of Music.

Following her educational career, Brico became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1938. The following year, Brico conducted the Federal Orchestra. 

Brico spent the remainder of her career traveling and performing around the world. Later in life, she settled in Denver, Colorado, and passed away in 1989.

Documentaries have covered Brico’s remarkable life, such as the 1974 film Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman.

2. Nadia Boulanger

Nadia Boulanger was a French pianist, organist, conductor, and teacher born in 1887.

Boulanger was born into a musically-inclined family and was the first woman to conduct major orchestras in America and Europe, such as the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, and Philadelphia orchestras.

Boulanger taught and influenced dozens of leading composers and musicians in the 20th century.

She worked with The Juilliard School, the Yehudi Menuhin School, and the Royal Academy of Music, among other institutions.

Boulanger is known as one of the most influential teachers of music composition in the 20th century. 

3. Alondra de la Parra

Alondra de la Parra is a famous Mexican-American conductor born in New York City in 1980. From age 7-13, de la Parra studied piano and cello in Mexico City. 

As an adult, de la Parra moved back to New York to study piano and conduct at the Manhattan School of Music.

She graduated with a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance and earned a MA in Conducting in 2008. 

In 2015, de la Parra conducted with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO). After, the QSO appointed her as the first music director and first female conductor featured in its principal conducting post for a 3-year term. 

De la Parra also serves as the cultural ambassador of Mexico and has won numerous prestigious awards.  

4. JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn Falletta, another New Yorker, was born in 1954 in Queens, New York. Falletta started her career as a mandolin and guitar player and earned music degrees at the Mannes College of Music, Queens College, and The Juilliard School.

Falletta has a reputation as the first woman to be appointed Music Director of a prominent American ensemble.

Additionally, she is the first American and woman conductor appointed to the Ulster Orchestra’s principal conductor. 

Throughout Falletta’s career, she has won numerous awards including a Grammy, and served on the National Council of Arts from 2008 to 2012. 

5. Barbara Hannigan

Barbara Hannigan, a Canadian native-born in 1971, is known as a contemporary opera artist and famous classical conductor.

Hannigan performed her first world premiere at age 17 earned a Bachelor of Music and Masters of Music at the University of Toronto. 

Hannigan has lived in France since 2017 and has received numerous awards and nominations, including an appointment to one of Canada’s highest civilian honors as a Member of the Order of Canada. 

Hannigan performs as both a soprano and conductor and has worked with Orchestras from around the world. Her website features tour dates and lists out her discography. 

6. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is a young Lithuanian conductor born in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

Born Mirga Gražinytė, she decided to add “Tyla” at the end of her name which translates to English as “Silence”. 

Following her father’s footsteps as a talented choir director, Gražinytė-Tyla conducted her first choir at age 13. 

She studied music at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, completing her degree in 2007. After, Gražinytė-Tyla studied conducting at the Music Conservatory Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in Leipzig.

In 2019, Gražinytė-Tyla became the first woman conductor to sign a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

She currently performs as a musical director at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

7. Susanna Mälkki

Susanna Mälkki is a Finnish conductor born in 1969. As a child, Mälkki started her musical career by learning the piano, violin, and cello. 

Mälkki studied music with a focus on the cello at the Sibelius Academy in Finland and London’s Royal Academy of Music.

At the start of her career, she was the principal cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Soon after, Mälkki left the position to pursue conducting.

Mälkki conducted throughout Europe and North America and is the first woman conductor to be appointed to the principal guest conductorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Mälkki is also the first woman conductor featured in the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. 

8. Han-na Chang

Han-na Chang is a young South Korean conductor born in 1982. A true prodigy, at only 3, Chang began learning the piano. Three years later, she started to learn the cello.

In 1993, Chang and her family moved to the United States, where she studied at the Juilliard School. 

Chang is the first female conductor appointed as chief conductor of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway.

In 2018, the orchestra announced the extension of her contract as chief conductor.

9. Elim Chan

Another young conductor, Elim Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1986. As a child, she learned the cello, piano, and participated in choirs. 

She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music at Smith College in 2009 and went on to study at the University of Michigan where she earned a Doctor of Music Arts in 2015. 

In 2014, Chan won the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition earning herself a reputation as the first female conductor to win the competition.

She is the first female and youngest conductor, named chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra.

10. Marin Alsop

Marin Alsop, a New York native born in 1956, is a talented violinist and conductor.

Alsop has studied at Julliard and Yale and earned herself a Bachelor of Music and a Masters of Music. 

Her career has been marked by Alsop becoming the first principal conductor and then music director of the Colorado Symphony.

Alsop also was the first conductor in history to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.

Throughout her career, Alsop has performed around the world and is still performing today. 

11. Sarah Caldwell

Sarah Caldwell was an American stage director, opera conductor, and impresario known as the first woman of Opera.

In 1976, she became the first woman conductor of the Metropolitan Opera

As a child music prodigy, Caldwell began performing as a violinist at age 10 and graduated high school at age 14. She earned a D.F.A. in 1975 from Bates College.

In 1997, she received the National Medal of Arts. Caldwell passed away in 2006. 

12. Jane Glover

Dame Jane Glover was born in 1949 and is a well-known British conductor.

Glover studied music briefly as an undergraduate at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and later completed a DPhil on 17th-century Venetian Opera. 

Glover earned several honorary degrees from different universities, is a Fellow of the Royal College of Music, and was the artistic director of opera at the Royal Academy of Music.

Among the most prestigious awards, Glover earned during her career was the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

At 72, Glover still conducts and performs, with dates listed on her website. 

13. Sarah Hicks

Sarah Hicks is a Japanese-American conductor born in Tokyo and raised in Honolulu, HI. She started her career as a pianist and violinist. 

Hicks graduated from Harvard with magna cum laude honors in music and earned an Artist’s Degree in conducting from the Curtis Institute of Music. 

Hicks took home the Thomas Hoopes Prize for her undergraduate thesis and the Doris Cohen Levy Prize for her conducting efforts at Harvard.

She has appeared as a guest conductor for an array of world-renowned orchestras and tours. 

She’s a specialist in the music film industry and is a constant participant in Disney productions, such as Disney’s+ “A Celebration of the Music from Coco”.

Her upcoming events and information on her works are listed on her website. 

Summing Up Our List Of Great Female Conductors

The role of the conductor is one of the most respected and honorable positions in music. 

Conducting is an art that requires a deep knowledge of music and the ability to direct a choir or orchestra with a stroke of a baton or hand gesture. 

While investigating conductors, make sure you take some time to watch these famous women conduct celebrated orchestras and choirs.

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.