A conductor is a musician who directs and leads orchestras and choirs by way of visible gestures. The conductor unifies performers, sets the tempo, executes clear preparations and beats, listens critically and shapes the sound of the ensembles. The conductor also chooses the works to be performed, makes certain adjustments to scores, works out interpretations and relays them to the performers.


Paavo Järvi

Paavo Järvi (Estonia, born 30 December 1962) is a conductor who has recorded for many notable labels. He more

Photo: Paavo Jaervi

Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti (Italy, July 28, 1941) is considered one of the world's greatest conductors especially of the operas of Verdi... read more

Photo: "Riccardo Muti" by Photo: Andreas Praefcke - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Valery Gergiev, Biography

Valery Gergiev (Russian, born 2 May 1953) is a conductor and opera company director. He is principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (2007-2015), chief conductor of the...more

Photo:"Valery Gergiev David Shankbone 2010" by David Shankbone - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Simon Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle (England, born 19 January 1955) is a conductor who rose to international prominence while Music Director of the City of Birmingham... read more

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Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel (Venezuela, born Jan 26, 1981) is a conductor and violinist. He is the music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar in Venezuela and of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is honorary conductor... read more 

Photo: "Gustavo Dudamel" by Gustavo Dudamel - Was sent to me personally. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Harding

Daniel Harding (British, born 31 August 1975) is a conductor who was discovered at age 17 by conductor Simon Rattle. Harding was the youngest-ever conductor to conduct at The Proms in 1996...more

Photo: "Daniel Harding" by Yuyu - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Daniele Gatti

Daniele Gatti (Italy, born 6 November 1961) is a conductor who was appointed as the seventh chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, succeeding Mariss Jansons... more

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Mariss Jansons

Mariss Jansons (Latvia, born 14 January 1943) is a conductor who has been awarded a vast number of international honors. From 2004 until 2015 he was the chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, which is considered one of the world’s leading orchestras...more

Photo: "Mariss jansons" by Ericoides - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Franz Welser-Moest

Franz Welser-Möst (Austria, born 16 August 1960) is a conductor who is since 2002 music director of the Cleveland Orchestra which is one of the world’s leading orchestras. He has many recordings with EMI label and received several awards...more

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Kirill Petrenko

Kirill Petrenko (Russian-Austrian, born February 11, 1972) is a conductor, who is the principal conductor of the Bavarian State Opera since 2013. In 2018, he is the successor of Sir Simon Rattle as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonie more

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One of the earliest notable conductors was Felix Mendelssohn (German, 1809-1847) who introduced a new approach of conducting and shaped a new self-understanding of conductors. He also may have been the first conductor to utilize a wooden baton as it is still used today.

The term "music director" is most common for orchestras in the United States. With European orchestras, the titles of "principal conductor" or "chief conductor" are more common, which designate the conductor who directs the majority of a given orchestra's concerts in a season. In musical theatre and opera, the music director is in charge of the overall musical performance, including ensuring that the cast knows the music thoroughly, supervising the musical interpretation of the performers and pit orchestra, and conducting the orchestra.

Most famous conductors today

The most famous conductors today include among others:

Riccardo Muti (Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2010),
Mariss Jansons (Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam 2004-2015),
Daniele Gatti (successor of Mariss Jansons in Amsterdam),
Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic 2002-2018),
Valery Gergiev (London Symphony Orchestra 2005-2015, Mariinsky Theatre and Munich Philharmonic starting 2015),
Ivan Fischer (Budapest Festival Orchestra since 1983)
Franz Welser-Moest (Cleveland Orchestra since 2002),
Gustavo Dudamel (Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2009),
Andris Nelsons (Boston Symphony Orchestra since 2014),
Alan Gilbert (New York Philharmonic since 2009),
Paavo Jarvi (Orchestre de Paris 2010-2016) and
Daniel Harding (Orchestre de Paris starting 2016).

The world's top 20 orchestras

Gramophone, which is a magazine devoted to classical music and published in London, conducted 2008 a critic’s poll ranking the world’s top 20 symphony orchestras.
The list including the current conductors is as follows:
1. Royal Concertgebouw, Mariss Jansons (2004-2015) and Daniele Gatti (starting 2016)
2. Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle (2002-2018) and Kirill Petrenko (starting 2018)
3. Vienna Philharmonic (working with guest conductors only)
4. London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (2005-2015)
5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (since 2010), one of the Big Five American Orchestras
6. Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (since 2003)
7. Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Moest (since 2002), one of the Big Five American Orchestras
8. Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (since 2009)
9. Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer (since 1983)
10. Dresden Staatskapelle, Christian Thielemann (since 2012)
11. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (since 2014), one of the Big Five American Orchestras
12. New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (since 2009), one of the Big Five American Orchestras
13. San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (since 1995)
14. Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (since 1988)
15. Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev (since its foundation in 1990)
16. St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Yuri Temirkanov (since 1988)
17. Leipzig Gewandhaus, Riccardo Chailly(since 2005)
18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fabio Luisi (since 2011)
19. Saito Kinen Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa (since 1992), Taijiro Iimori, Tatsuya Shimono
20. Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek (since 2012).

Big Five

Four of the Big Five American Orchestras are already included above, the fifths of the Big Five is the Philadelphia Orchestra, currently conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin since 2012.

The Big Five orchestras of the United States are the five symphony orchestras that led the field in "musical excellence, calibre of musicianship, total contract weeks, weekly basic wages, recording guarantees, and paid vacations" when the term gained currency in the late 1950s and for some years afterwards. In order of foundation, they were: New York Philharmonic (1842), Boston Symphony Orchestra (1881), Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1891), Philadelphia Orchestra (1900) and Cleveland Orchestra (1918).

Top Seven

People still refer to the "Big Five", but many believe the classification to be outdated. Several critics have suggested that the top echelon is expanded. Seven American orchestras were numbered among the world's top twenty in a 2008 critics' poll by Gramophone. They were, in rank order, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (5th), the Cleveland Orchestra (7th), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (8th), the Boston Symphony Orchestra (11th), the New York Philharmonic (12th), the San Francisco Symphony (13th), and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (New York City) (18th). While The Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra would expand the American “Big Five”, the Philadelphia Orchestra did not rank among the world’s top 20.