Young conductor makes impressive stand with Elgin Symphony Orchestra

Sun Nov 07, 2021 at 11:14 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Anna Rakitina conducted the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Saturday night at Hemmens Cultural Center.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra has embarked on a search for a new music director following the departure of Andrew Grams, who led his final concert in August after an eight-year tenure.

This 2021-22 roster of guest conductors has not been officially designated as an “audition season” for Grams’ successor. But the ESO lineup is peopled by young conductors and, invariably, feels like a round of tryouts to see who may click with the Elgin players.

With her impressive showing Saturday night at Hemmens Cultural Center, Anna Rakitina surely has earned a high spot on any short list.

Rakitina turned in her violin for a baton just two years ago. Since then she has won several conducting competition prizes, and was named a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in September of 2019. The pandemic effectively wiped out half off her two-year BSO schedule but she has clearly been making up for lost time in recent months with many regional bookings.

The Overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro made a useful calling card for both Rakitina and the Elgin musicians. The far northwest suburban orchestra is among the finest of regional ensembles with excellent strings, consistent woodwinds and solid if more variable brass.

The petite Russian conductor, who looks much younger than her 32 years, directed a vital and dynamic reading of Mozart’s curtain-raiser that communicated an essential theatricality. The spirited playing was highlighted by whirling violins led by the ESO’s estimable concertmaster Isabella Lippi.

Making something fresh and individual out of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 is no mean feat. But Rakitina managed to do just that, investing the Russian warhorse with taut concentration and a dramatic urgency that made for an uncommonly compelling interpretation.

From the hushed and spacious introduction of the gloomy opening motto theme, it was clear this young conductor knew exactly where she wanted to go in this score and had the means to get the musicians to go with her. Directing with rounded, flowing motions, she set tempos that felt just right, bringing a radiant lilt to the second subject and charting the surging drama of the first movement with tensile power and biting brass attacks.

Principal horn Greg Flint lifted a graceful cantabile solo in the slow movement and Rakitina’s exemplary pacing skillfully judged the lyrical ebb and flow, enhanced by superb playing from guest principal oboe Alex Liedtke, with a well-placed central climax. The waltz went with gracious elegance. 

From the sonorous opening statement of the motto, Rakitina led the finale with a firm yet flexible hand, keeping the dramatic tension high and driving inexorably to a brassy and triumphant coda. 

Rakitina and the ESO received a deservedly enthusiastic ovation and the conductor was generous in calling out individual musicians and sections to stand for special recognition.

Gabriel Martins

The evening’s centerpiece, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, offered an opportunity for another young musician, but here the results proved more mixed.

Winner of the 2020 Sphinx Competition among other awards, Gabriel Martins was the solo protagonist. Currently in graduate studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, Martins is a promising musician with a poetic sensibility. His performance of Shostakovich’s gritty concerto was at its finest in the interior moments. In the Moderato, Martins’ widely terraced array of hushed dynamics was mesmerizing in its sensitive playing of this bleak midnight rumination.

Yet in the galumphing outer movements, Martins was less convincing. His technique sounded like a work in progress Saturday night with the most challenging sections taken at a cautious tempo, and even then the soloist tended to lose focus as he warily negotiated the pitfalls. Without the requisite bursts of bravura brilliance, we were only getting half the story of Shostakovich’s rugged concerto. Rakitina and the orchestra lent sympathetic support, some insecure solo horn playing apart.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Hemmens Cultural Center.

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