With her distinctive voice as maestra, speaker, and poet, critics praise Panamanian-American conductor Kalena Bovell as “one of the brightest stars in classical music.” (Channel 3 News, Connecticut). Propelled by a steadfast commitment to musical excellence and community access, Bovell has rapidly ascended to international prominence. Her recent achievements include receiving the prestigious 2024 Sphinx Medal of Excellence—the highest honor bestowed by the Sphinx Organization—and being named a 2022-2024 Awardee of the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship. In a groundbreaking moment, Bovell etched her name in history in 2023 as the first Black woman to conduct an opera in Canada, conducting a world premiere reimagination of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha.
Bovell's 2023-2024 season sees her traverse Canada, the U.S. and Switzerland: in North America, she will mark her debut performances with the Minnesota Orchestra, Louisiana Philharmonic, Cincinnati Symphony, Colorado Music Festival, Hamilton Philharmonic, and the Victoria Symphony. Also of note are return performances with the Oakland Symphony and Musikkollegium Winterthur following her 2022 debut with the namesake orchestra. Residencies this season include with University of the Pacific and Juilliard Pre-College Orchestra.
One of orchestral music’s marquee conductors, Bovell has blazed a formidable trail in just the past few years. On the Chineke! Orchestra’s 2022 album—Coleridge-Taylor, a celebration of the eponymous African-British composer—Bovell shined as a featured conductor. Among the critical praise for the album released on Chineke! Records, The Financial Times penned that Bovell’s musical interpretation “overflows with descriptive imagination.” Apart from the album, her career has had particularly memorable moments, including leading the Chineke! Orchestra at the BBC Proms and conducting Kevin Thomas’s Firebird with the Collage Dance Collective as a part of the Kennedy Center’s “Reframing the Narrative”. Reviewing her BBC performance, ArtsDesk stated simply: "Never let her go."
Until 2023, Bovell made her home in Memphis as Assistant Conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Conductor of the MSO Youth Orchestra. A longtime guest conductor of the ensemble, she led some of the MSO’s more memorable events, from sharing the stage with Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. to conducting former Music Director Mei-Ann Chen’s farewell concerts. Prior to her four year tenure with Memphis, Bovell’s professional debut came as the Chicago Sinfonietta's Assistant Conductor in 2015, followed by cover conducting roles with St. Louis Symphony and Hartford Symphony. However, her 2018-2019 appointment as the Music Director at the Civic Orchestra of New Haven would serve as a first marker of Bovell’s potential. There, she elevated Civic Orchestra's musicality and the diversity of its repertoire, all while increasing the size of its roster. Further, she made her mark on the region through numerous guest conducting appearances, including Hartford Opera Theater, leading two short operas in its annual "New in November" festival.
Much of Bovell’s artistic philosophy stems from her relatively delayed entry to the classical music world. Though Kalena showed promise as a violinist, a lack of musical resources meant her first private lesson would come at 18. Her experience far behind the typical conservatory-trained musician, Kalena found a new home as a conductor, and worked six jobs to fund the many plane tickets, workshops, and conducting lessons required to excel. Hoping to inspire younger musicians, Bovell shares this unique journey to professional conducting as often as possible. Among those who have heard her story are the BBC, the League of American Orchestras, the Sphinx Organization, Tennessee Music Education Association, and the III International Women Conductor's Symposium, among many other radio, webinar, and podcast appearances.
A Los Angeles native, Bovell received a Master of Music and Graduate Professional Diploma in Orchestral Conducting from The Hartt School, where she studied with Edward Cumming. She holds a Bachelor of Music Education from the College of the Performing Arts at Chapman University, which honored her as a Distinguished Alumni in 2021. Outside conducting, Bovell is a published poet and has increasingly interwoven her poetry with her music career. Her original poem, "Tethered Voices," was performed by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra and set to music by James Lees III.
Kalena makes her home in Memphis, Tennessee, where she enjoys cooking, writing poetry, weight training, and trying new pizza places.