The question being asked every time a conductor takes the podium to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as Anna Rakitina did Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl, continues to be: Is this the person with the right stuff to replace Gustavo Dudamel?
Best known for her work as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Rakitina has L.A. credentials. She is a former LA Phil Dudamel Fellow (2019–2020) and has conducted a number of youth and community concerts with the orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Her Bowl debut began with a rhapsodic interpretation of Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor with soloist Sterling Elliott. But it was the emotional intensity of the second half of the program that may have put Rakitina in the running for the top spot. Born in Moscow to a Ukrainian father and a Russian mother, she must have been feeling a welter of emotions as she conducted Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, a Stalinist-era spiderweb of conflicting emotions.
Rakitina’s style is minimal to the point that she hardly seems to be doing much more than marking time with a succession of gently swooping arm gestures and elegant baton indications. If less is more, Rakitina is its poster child. Her baton indications never flutter like some electrified dowsing rod. Her facial expressions border on monochromatic. She certainly does not wear her heart on her sleeve like so many conductors.
But listen to the music: the way she skillfully balances her orchestral forces; the illuminating way instrumental voices emerge, soar, recede, and blend; the way she develops an emotional arc. These are the trademarks of an accomplished conductor. So what if she favors subtlety over flamboyance and casual couture over Yuja Wang-level glam? Of course, this works best if the orchestra has a long history with the piece and could almost play it without you, as the LA Phil can do with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.
Making his second solo appearance at the Bowl, Elliott got off to a rocky start with his rendition of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. Possibly uncertain how hard he needed to attack for maximum effect in the sonic crater of the venue, he erred on the side of harder and louder, which smudged intonation and pushed many passages to the level of overstatement.
The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, gave Elliott the chance he needed to relax and let his remarkable 1741 Gennaro Gagliano cello sing. If the first movement had been a battle of strength, the second was all lyricism and gentle persuasion.
Elliott’s approach to the climactic third movement exuded virtuosic bravado and fiery emotions. He even managed to sneak in a smile.
The LA Phil has a long relationship with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, including remarkable performances led by frequent guest conductor Kurt Sanderling. I have been told by Philharmonic musicians that Sanderling imparted insights into the symphony’s tortured history that stemmed directly from his friendship with the composer. Anyone who experienced Sanderling’s interpretation of the third-movement Largo — that icy winter of the soul — could never forget it.
Rakitina can now proudly add her name to the orchestra’s legacy. Her handling of the opening movement balanced the conflicting atmospheres of martial pomp and somber introspection. The Allegretto frolicked to the point of being tipsy. Then came the Largo. Perhaps, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in mind, Rakitina made the music ache with sadness, like a cry for salvation. Then with explosive energy, she ignited the finale.
This was definitely a night when the Bowl’s screens offered insights over distraction, when the amazing musicianship of the Phil was in full view: the violin solos of Martin Chalifour, the keyboard artistry of Joanne Pearce Martin, the resounding brass and plaintive call of the winds. I will never forget the eyes of principal harpist Emmanuel Ceysson as the final notes of the Largo fell like drops of melting snow.
And Rakitina made it all happen despite a swarm of helicopters, cascading wine bottles, mindless chatter, dinging text notices, and an aurora of glowing cell phone screens.