Conductor and pianist fail to impress in lackluster Elgin Symphony concert

Sun Feb 05, 2023 at 10:29 am

By Tim Sawyier

Kyle Ritenauer conducted the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in music of Beethoven, Wagner and Schumann Saturday night.

As speculation continues about who will succeed Riccardo Muti downtown, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra is nearing the end of its own two-year search for a new music director, following the departure of Andrew Grams at the end of the 2020-21 season. Last year eight finalists for the position were announced, with each afforded the opportunity to lead a subscription program with the orchestra. The result of the search will be announced May 23.

Saturday night at the Hemmens Cultural Center it was time for New York-based Kyle Ritenauer’s on-the-job interview, and one can only hope that other candidates have acquitted themselves more successfully than the Manhattan School of Music faculty member did.

The evening opened with Ritenauer leading a moribund account of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. The awakening opening bars felt more static than stirring, and a metronomic sensibility prevailed as the intimate score unfolded. The sweep and ardor this music cries for were absent, and Wagner’s gorgeous harmonic pivots were passed over with seeming indifference.

An anxious account of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5 followed, with pianist Albert Cano Smit as soloist. Smit has an unusual stage presence, one that is reminiscent of Glenn Gould: the bench is set very low, with his tall, slender frame hunched over the keys.

There seemed to be little contact between Smit and Ritenauer. Orchestral entrances after solo passages were routinely approximate, as though both men could do no better than hope they linked up. Smit’s technique also felt insecure, with a host of stray notes and the Allegro’s ubiquitous triplet gestures sounding inarticulate.

The glowing Adagio stayed earthbound. Smit’s playing felt literal, and Ritenauer struggled to cultivate a unified texture between soloist and orchestra. The closing Rondo, where a punchy rhythmic emphasis is not necessarily out of place, went best; but still Smit’s phrasing often felt arbitrary and Ritenauer’s support unsettled.

Smit returned for an encore of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118 No 2, of which he gave a sensitive, flowing account. He captured the music’s reflective air, and clearly has more to say musically than he was able to in the Beethoven outing.

Ritenauer’s account of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3 provided more of the same. There is often a danger of formlessness in Schumann’s music, and he was unable to make a coherent case for Schumann’s score. While the outer Lebhaft movements had moments of open-air swagger, their more subtly variegated moods were elided. The inner movements—the Ländler Scherzo, tiptoeing Nicht schnell, and dark-hued Feierlich—all felt on the surface, leaving one questioning Ritenauer’s instincts for sustained line and direction.

Much of Ritenauer’s professional duties involve preparing orchestras for performances with more seasoned conductors, and his account of the “Rhenish” made this easy to believe: the orchestra seemed ready for someone else with a clearer perspective to take over and make the Schumann symphony their own.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra repeats this program 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

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