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Hong Kong-born Elim Chan ahead of her 2016 performance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. She is principal conductor of a Swedish opera company orchestra. Photo: Hong Kong Philharmonic

Six women who are rising stars in world of orchestral conducting, and who remind us wielding a baton is not just for men

Hong Kong’s Yip Wing-sie was once a rarity as a woman conductor and music director of an orchestra. Not any more. A clutch of talented women conductors, including the city’s Elim Chan, have assumed roles with leading ensembles

While the classical music industry – especially the leadership roles – used to be heavily dominated by men, things are starting to change as more women pick up the conductor’s baton.

No longer is Hong Kong Sinfonietta music director Yip Wing-sie, who started out as resident conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in the mid-1980s at the age of 26, an outlier.

Orchestral conducting 101, as contestants vie for Hong Kong competition laurels

This week Yip was one of the judges in the 1st International Conducting Competition in Hong Kong, presented by the Sinfonietta, in which two women – Marta Gardolinska from Poland and Germany’s Corinna Niemeyer – were among eight candidates to reach the semi-finals at Hong Kong City Hall in Central. They and other aspiring female conductors don’t lack for role models these days, as these six rising conductors around the world show.

Elim Chan

After winning the Donatella Flick LSO conducting competition in 2014, the Hong Kong-born conductor became assistant conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) the following season and made a musical landmark in 2015 by being the first Hong Kong conductor to direct the LSO.

She was appointed to the Dudamel Fellowship programme with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2016/17, and is currently principal conductor of the Orchestra of NorrlandsOperan, a Swedish opera company. Starting in the 2018/19 season, she will be principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Conductor Elim Chan thrilled to be making hometown debut with HK Phil

The 32-year-old feels her gender has at times attracted too much attention.

“I do not want my gender, my femininity, to become a crutch … I am proud of being a woman conductor, but I want to take the next step and go beyond any tags and be seen and valued as the same as my male colleagues,” she wrote in an article published in The Guardian.

Chinese American conductor Xian Zhang. Photo: Nora Roitberg

Xian Zhang

Music director of the New Jersey Symphony, having previously held the same role with Milan’s Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra, Zhang does not mind questions about the gender gap in the industry. “The more we ask these questions, the more people will get used to the idea of women conducting, and this will speed up the process of getting more women into the profession,” she told The Guardian in 2015 when she made history by becoming the first female to have a titled conducting role with a BBC Orchestra. 

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The Chinese-born Zhang trained at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing since the age of thirteen, before moving to United States where she was later appointed the associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic, working alongside the late Lorin Maazel.

Alondra de la Parra. Photo: AFP

Alondra de la Parra

The New York-born de la Parra spent most of her childhood in Mexico before returning to the Big Apple, where she started the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas at the young age of 23 to support emerging musicians from Latin America.

The 37-year-old has lead the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Australia as its music director since 2015. While she is proud to be a role model for girls with similar aspirations, she told NBC News in 2015: “I am a woman, I am a Mexican but that is just part of the many ingredients that make me who I am. It’s more three dimensional than the particular labels.”

Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla.

Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla

The 31-year-old Lithuanian, who took the helm at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Britain in 2016, said in an interview with the Financial Times that it “never even occurred” to her that her gender might hinder her career.

This may be true because of her smooth rise: after winning the Nestlé and Salzburg Young Conductors Competition in 2012, she became assistant conductor at the LA Philharmonic and music director of the Landestheater in Salzburg, Austria, before landing her current position as music director of the CBSO.

Shi Yeon Sung. Photo: Alamy

Shi-Yeon Sung 

The first woman to be named assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Shi-Yeon Sung has been artistic director and chief conductor of the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra in South Korea since 2014. Shi, who has studied in Sweden, Berlin and Zurich, came to attention after winning the prestigious Sir Georg Solti International Conductors’ Competition in Germany in 2006. After that Shi, now 43, was named assistant conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.

Speranza Scappucci.

Speranza Scappucci

The 44-year-old Italian, who graduated from the Julliard School of Music, made her conducting debut only in 2012 when she became the first woman to conduct a Yale Opera production. She has worked with several other opera orchestras since – such as the Vienna State Opera and the Washington National Opera – and became principal conductor of the Opera Royal de Wallonie in Belgium at the start of the 2017/18 season.

Of being a female conductor she told the Huffington Post: “When we step onto the podium we are musicians. Whether we are women or men, musicians have their own sensitivity and sensibility as musicians.”