Lidiya Yankovskaya conducts at the United Nations
The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as Musical Leaders for the 21st Century
Lidiya Yankovskaya conducts at the United Nations IMAGE: Steve Philip

The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as Musical Leaders for the 21st Century

Our society has become increasingly characterized by its “gig economies”—short-term work, often defined by the worker herself. Recent studies have predicted the gig economy will represent 43% of the workforce by 2020, and the number will only rise. With the gig economy comes any number of difficulties, as modern workers are often compelled to be entrepreneurs, self-starters, self-motivators, and creators.

Conductors are no different. Indeed, they are well-positioned to take advantage of this new economic order, and many are already doing so, with outstanding results.

In addition to their traditional duties within established institutions, an increasing number of conductors run independent organizations, launch musical and civic initiatives, serve as catalysts for the development of new work, and use their positions to cross disciplinary boundaries. In bypassing institutional gatekeepers, these conductors have brought relevance, vitality, and an expanding number of previously unrepresented voices into the field. Indeed, the dynamic new “catalyst-conductor” could help bring the revitalization that the classical music industry so desperately seeks.

Conductors as musical leaders

The traditional role of the conductor was sharply delineated. A conductor would join a well-established institution, choose repertoire, maintain a musical vision, and lead other musicians in performance. Secondary expectations included some direct interaction with donors and audience, and marginal involvement in certain fundraising and marketing campaigns. The traditional Maestro arrived to rehearsal or performance with all logistics in place, all administrative details carried out, and focused solely on the interpretation of the repertoire he was to perform. Most of his time outside of rehearsal was devoted to score study. In his youth, the Maestro was likely an instrumentalist or composer. He attended a graduate study program and eventually found himself an apprenticeship with a more established conductor, under whom he served as an assistant before moving to an ensemble of his own.

Many of my colleagues have thrived by following this focused route—studying standard repertory at a graduate program, attending a couple of prestigious festivals, serving as an assistant for a major professional orchestra, and then, following years of apprenticeship, winning a music directorship at an institution of their own. Some of these individuals now make great impact and bring creative programming to their newly found communities.

But while this path has become progressively more rare, other routes have emerged. In my early career, I embarked on a very different journey—one that has wholly shaped my music making today. Following college and graduate work, I was not apprenticed to a major musical institution. I never found an apprentice-based assistantship particularly attractive, but many traditional opportunities also simply did not exist for me. I was 23 years old, in Boston, surrounded by other young people, and wanting to create art. So that is what we did. I spent the first decade of my career running a new music ensemble and several small opera companies, in a cobbled-together career that involved conducting everything—from the largest standard works to tiny chamber music pieces of niche repertoire, from youth orchestras to professional choruses and community opera organizations. I performed with every small-budget musical collective around, while occasionally assisting at more established institutions. In my early years I never said “no” to a gig—if they wanted to see La serva padrona in a local ashram, I would conduct the opera barefoot to audiences who were sitting on the floor and sipping chai. If they asked me to put together a full-scale production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades in a university dining hall, there I was, moving solid oak tables onto a Harvard lawn. I was fortunate to be in a vibrant city, surrounded by other artists of the highest caliber, learning by doing.

For me, this entrepreneurial, gig-economy approach was the perfect way to hone my craft and launch a career. At the small-budget organizations I led, I was involved not only in the musical and programming activities but also oversaw marketing, fundraising, production, and other areas. I learned about all aspects of administration, moved percussion instruments, built opera sets, recruited board members, folded solicitation letters, and created budgetary spreadsheets. It was an insanely packed life that was only possible to sustain for a limited period. Throughout most of my 20s, my peak score study hours were 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., after the rehearsals and meetings were complete, emails were answered, and I could have a solid chunk of time without interruption.

Most of my teachers and mentors scolded my failure to specialize and discouraged my involvement in running organizations, launching initiatives, and collaborating with people outside of my field. They saw this as a waste of time that deterred from the development of a niche skillset. But what those teachers failed to grasp was the intrinsic value of a multi-disciplinary approach to life. My chamber music experience now informs my approach to even the most large-scale symphonic and operatic works. My administrative and production experience has shaped both my leadership style and my artistic ideas, giving me a more holistic view of my work.

And I am hardly alone. At the time, I was unaware of the countless other conductors following the same multi-faceted, entrepreneurial path. This new norm is one we should embrace and encourage, as it contains potential solutions to some of the issues facing classical music today.

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit
IMAGE: Kathy Wittman

Development of the Catalyst-Conductor

The change in the conductor’s role has not been sudden—it has developed gradually over the last few decades. The first developments stemmed from conductors’ more traditional responsibility of seeking and promoting the work of the composers of their time. In the middle of the 20th century, as the contemporary music movement largely moved out of mainstream concert settings, this role became more vital than ever before and the catalyst-conductor emerged. In my mind, the definitive originator for this change was Pierre Boulez. As a composer-conductor, Boulez had a personal stake in recognizing and supporting contemporary work. As an exceptional musician and tireless advocate, he used his position to move the field forward, founding as many as five large-scale institutions of the highest level, four of which continue to thrive today. Those organizations—IRCAM, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique, and the Lucerne Festival Academy—have served as central development and training grounds for European music. I find especially impressive Boulez’s founding of these organizations after he was well into an international conducting career. Even amid an incredibly full agenda as conductor and composer, Boulez took responsibility for opening doors to his contemporaries and creating opportunities for the most innovative music making of his time. His tireless dedication to music, above all else—both in terms of his contributions to the field and his own fastidious artistry—should serve as a model for all in our industry. If the music wasn’t being performed in a traditional institution, he created his own space.

Boulez demonstrated that a conductor could use his position, broad musical expertise, and management experience to serve as an influencer and founder of necessary and critical initiatives. Countless conductors and composer-conductors have since launched exciting new music organizations of various bents (some American examples include Tania León/Composers Now, Brad Lubman/Ensemble Signal, Alan Pierson/Alarm Will Sound, Gil Rose/BMOP, and David Bloom/Contemporaneous). In Britain, a group of conductors used the same method to promote Early and Baroque repertoire, founding the influential Historically Informed Performance, or HIP, movement (John Eliot Gardiner, Andrew Parrott, Christopher Hogwood, and others).

In more recent years, an increasing number of conductors have used a similar approach in mobilizing civic change. Large institutions play a critical role in preserving tradition and providing the building blocks necessary for high-level, large-scale performance. As the public faces of these institutions, conductors are well-positioned to serve as advocates, both within our field and for non-musical causes. However, the traditional organizations we represent rely on support from foundations and individuals representing a broad political and civic spectrum, so there is always a fear that, if a “political” or “social justice” position is taken, someone will feel alienated. Indeed, as an organizational leader, I recognize many limitations on what I can advocate within the confines of an existing institution without the risk of hurting our relationship with long-standing patrons and supporters. However, those same supporters, while wishing the institution to remain on neutral ground, generally have no issue with the conductor having separate projects that support a specific social agenda.

The most recognized example of a conductor-activist initiative is Daniel Barenboim’s long-standing work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999. The orchestra brings together Israeli musicians with Palestinian and other Arab musicians in an attempt to unite individuals torn by a deep political and ideological divide. The Chicago Sinfonietta, founded by Paul Freeman, has worked to address the lack of diversity within the orchestral world. There are also conductors like Kristo Kondakçi (whose work includes a chorus for homeless women) and Joseph Conyers (Philadelphia’s Project 440 and All City Youth Orchestra), who have dedicated the majority of their musical efforts to social causes. These individuals have used positions at big-name institutions to form outside projects that affect civic change. The institutions provide them with the necessary stamp of quality and legitimacy. But by working outside the institutions—and seeking music making in new venues, for new communities—these conductors are able to make a tremendous impact on society.

Bypassing the Gatekeepers

A major positive outcome of increased entrepreneurship among conductors has been the opportunity for those who may otherwise have been overlooked to gain recognition. While I eventually found musical opportunities in more established organizations, my early career was largely defined by my work in a never-ending array of smaller, dynamic organizations, which I was able to develop and grow. And again, I am hardly alone. For some conductors, when opportunities did not materialize, starting their own ensembles served as the ideal career launching pad. Sarah Caldwell raised money, directed, conducted, and produced countless performances with the Opera Company of Boston, at a time when women were almost entirely missing not only from the podium, but also from the orchestra and the administration. Marin Alsop credits much of her success to a decision early on to start her own ensemble, an experience that allowed her to gain the skills she needed to succeed. Nicole Paiement established her place in the opera field with San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle and Eve Queler with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Alondra de la Parra is another example, founding the Orchestra of the Americas, which served both to showcase overlooked Latin American repertoire and to hone and prove her abilities before she had other opportunities to do so.

Without an established authority’s stamp of approval, it is not possible to convince others to follow unless they truly believe in your work. A conductor who is unprepared, unmusical, uninspiring, rude, or unreliable will never be able to get away with these faults without a larger-looming prestige figure or institution behind them. Likewise, audiences will not tolerate anything short of a stellar product when the emblem of a major accrediting body is not on the performance. Early-career conductors who run their own organizations are forced to prove their excellence by making great art that earns respect of its own accord. They can then bring the enormous experience gained from this challenge to their positions at major institutions, further impacting the field in a positive direction.

By forming their own ensembles and bypassing the gatekeepers of the classical music world, conductors like Caldwell, Alsop, and Paiement put large cracks into some very thick glass ceilings. Other conductors have made strides in areas of equity and diversity by overseeing educational initiatives. Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony partners with the Sphinx Organization to train a diverse body of emerging professionals, Marin Alsop’s OrchKids gives high-level training opportunities to kids from the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, and her Taki Concordia Fellowship supports emerging women conductors. In each of these situations, major conductors have used their position and expertise to create independent organizations with the purpose of filling a void.

The Future of Conductorial Entrepreneurship

Contemporary culture is built on entrepreneurship. Start-ups have defined and reshaped our social, business, and creative models. However, the structures inherent within the classical music industry have often left our field trailing behind, scrambling to keep up with the intense pace of modern cultural change. In order for classical music to thrive and move forward, we must find more ways to encourage and support individuals who are taking the difficult path of forming, running, organizing, and creating performance groups for a new era. If fully supported and embraced, conductorial entrepreneurship can be a solid pathway to increased diversity and stronger artistic leadership within classical music.

Although traditional conductor-specialists have an important place and will continue to flourish, conductor-entrepreneurs can spearhead the next wave of classical music. As mobilizers and catalysts for change, conductors from diverse backgrounds—spanning cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender boundaries—can have an opportunity to make an impact on our field, even when initially halted by gate-keeping institutions. Those who embark on this path can foster creativity and collaboration, open doors that may otherwise remain closed, increase the number of voices represented, and ultimately move classical music toward a more viable future.


Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya is a champion of Russian masterpieces, operatic rarities, and contemporary works on the leading edge of classical music. As Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, Lidiya is the only woman to hold that title in a multimillion-dollar opera company in the United States. In the 2019/20 season, Ms. Yankovskaya leads the world premiere of Dan Shore’s Freedom Ride and the Chicago premieres of Joby Talbot’s Everest, Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, and David T. Little’s Soldier Songs at Chicago Opera Theater. She conducts Ricky Ian Gordon’s Ellen West at... Read more »


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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