Top 5 rising conductors of 2014

Jan. 7, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

Transforming orchestras, winning international competitions, breaking gender barriers: That is just a sample of what young conductors are doing these days. 2014 was a thrilling year that marked the rise of many brilliant talents, but more importantly it brought to the forefront the touchy issue of gender in a field historically dominated by men. This is changing, however, as increasing numbers of female conductors prove their leadership skills and musical gifts as the heads of top orchestras. Of the five conductors listed here, four are women, named not just because they are women but because they are brave artistic crusaders, talented in their own right. From the well regarded Susanna Malkki, who is set to head the oldest orchestra in the Nordic countries, to the relatively unknown Elim Chan, who became the first woman to win the prestigious Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, female conductors new and seasoned are beginning to show their mettle.

Courtesy of Dr. Dave Weiland
Courtesy of Sean Cook and EMI Classics

1. Conductor Han-na Chang transforms young national orchestra into world-class ensemble

Beginning in 2013 when she became head of the Qatar Philharmonic orchestra , Han-na Chang transformed the young orchestra — founded in 2007 — into an international powerhouse that was invited to perform at the BBC Proms in September 2014. The performance elicited a highly positive response from critics, with The Guardian dubbing Chang and QPO a “winning combination,” and a review on the classical music site Bachtrack praising the performance as “outstanding.” Unfortunately, less than 24 hours after the performance, Chang submitted her resignation as Music Director, citing “persistent administrative difficulties and irreconcilable artistic differences with the management of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra.”

2. Young conductor Cristian Macelaru named 2014 Solti Fellow

Courtesy of Cristian Macelaru
Courtesy of Cristian Macelaru

Romanian-born conductor Cristian Macelaru, dubbed “The real thing” by  the Chicago Sun-Times, was selected by the Solti Foundation as the 2014 recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, otherwise known as the Solti Fellowship. The award is bestowed annually to a promising young American conductor under the age of 38, and it comes with a $25,000 grant — one of the largest grants given to American conductors. The news came in the midst of a flourishing 2013-14 season, in which Macelaru appeared with the Naples Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony, along with a heralded debut with the National Symphony Orchestra, featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997) is considered among one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century.

3. Joana Carneiro makes a splash at the opera

Courtesy of Dr. Dave Welland.
Courtesy of Dr. Dave Welland.

Lively, versatile and energetic, Joana Carneiro made an impressive debut at the English National Opera last November when she conducted John Adam’s staged work “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” described on the ENO’s website to be “one of the most significant events in London’s contemporary music season.” The production, directed by the acclaimed Peter Sellars, received enthusiastic reviews, all of which commented on the stellar conducting of Carneiro. The Guardian lauded the performance as “Vigorously and sensitively conducted.” Other critics agreed. A “dynamo,” is how one described her. “Fine form,” praised another. Carneiro, who has appeared at the Cincinnati Opera, the Chicago Opera Theater and the Paris Opera, is also the Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony and the Principal Conductor of the Portugal National Symphony.

4. University of Michigan Ph.D. student Elim Chan wins international conducting competition

In a dramatic twist that seemed straight out of the movies, Elim Chan, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, became the first woman to win the 2014 Donatella Flick Conducting Competition with the London Symphony Orchestra, beating out the two other (male) finalists. Her win brings attention to the vast inequality in gender in the conducting world. Out of the 225 applicants, only five were women, a figure which New York Times critic Michael White calls  a “dismal but not wholly surprising statistic.” Women conductors may be rare, but they’re no less able, as seen in Chan’s accomplishment. As a result of her win, she will be awarded £15,000 ($23,500) and have the honor of serving as assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra for a year.

5. Finnish Conductor Susanna Malkki becomes the first woman to lead Helsinki Philharmonic

Courtesy of Simon Fowler.
Courtesy of Simon Fowler.

In September 2014, the Helsinki Philharmonic announced that Susanna Malkki will succeed John Storgards in 2016 as its music director, making her the first woman to hold this post in the orchestra’s distinguished 133 year history. Malkki, who has enjoyed a blossoming career conducting top orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic, was also the first female to conduct Teatro Alla Scala Opera House and to hold the post of music director of Ensemble Intercontemporain. When it comes to breaking gender barriers, Malkki may be a true pioneer, but she isn’t one to relish in it. “Maybe one day we will have reached a point where we won’t have to discuss the gender issue at all,” she said in an interview with Reuters. With any luck, that day will come soon.

Contact Marisa Lin at mlin3 ‘at’

Marisa Lin is Music Desk Critic for the Stanford Daily. An undeclared freshman, she hails from Rochester, Minnesota. Contact Marisa at mlin3 'at'

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