With a post at a top orchestra and more than a dozen debuts around the world this season and next, conductor Anna Rakitina already had a burgeoning career when she got an urgent call last month from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The CSO's artistic staff asked her to substitute for guest conductor Edo de Waart, who had been scheduled to lead the March 24 and 26 concerts. The invite was an unexpected and important career milestone for the up-and-coming Russian-born conductor.
Rakitina, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 2019, calls the request “totally exciting” and a “great honor,” but she also realizes that the sudden opportunity to lead such a high-profile orchestra is a big responsibility as well. “I’m looking forward to facing all of these feelings — joy and fear, stress and happiness and everything,” she said.
Substitute conductors sometimes change the originally scheduled program because they might not be familiar with the selected works and don’t have time to learn them, but Rakitina agreed to conduct this all-Tchaikovsky bill as announced because she knows the repertoire well.
It incorporates four of the composer’s most popular works, including his Capriccio italien, Op. 45; Pezzo capriccioso, Op. 62, and Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33, which on this program features cellist Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. Rounding out the concert are selections from the holiday ballet The Nutcracker, which is one of Rakitina’s favorite works.
Rakitina also has another last-minute, high-profile podium assignment coming up. On March 18, the New York Philharmonic tapped her to lead the orchestra in three concerts beginning March 31. She replaces the originally scheduled Russian conductor Tugan Sokhiev, who recently resigned from two orchestra music directorships over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Calling the switch a mutual decision, N.Y. Phil administrators said the substitution was made “out of regard for the current global situation.”
Born in Moscow to a Russian mother and Ukrainian father, Rakitina studied violin as a child but gave up the instrument when she was 12. Instead, she began vocal studies with dreams of a professional career. But when she was 22 and a student at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, she came to terms with her vocal abilities and decided to try conducting instead. She remembered her mother, a choir conductor, telling her about such celebrated maestros as Yevgeny Mravinsky and Herbert von Karajan.
“I became curious about how conductors are trained, and what they do with their arms, and how it all works.” To her surprise, her professor Stanislav Diachenko recommended that she continue her studies, and Rakitina then spent two years at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg.
Concurrently, she also pursued her musicological studies, ultimately earning a doctorate after writing a dissertation on the flow of time in Rachmaninov's chamber music and romances. “If we’re talking about Rachmaninov, I admire his chamber music, his vocal music and his piano music more than his big works.”
In 2018, Rakitina took second place at the Malko Competition, a prestigious triennial international contest for conductors, organized by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Even though she did not secure the top prize, her accomplishments brought her attention in the orchestra world.
“Competitions can sometimes really help in career building because, first of all, many people can watch you live,” she said. “So they know how you conduct, how you rehearse, and based on that, you get opportunities to go further and reach out to wider audiences.”
One ensemble that took notice was the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which invited her to audition for an assistant conductor post, which she won.
Though she has conducted only two BSO concerts so far, including one last summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival, she values her exposure to the many top-level guest conductors who lead the orchestra. She not only has the chance to watch them in performances and rehearsals, she also can ask questions about scores and seek other kinds of advice, and she has found them to be “very open and helpful.” She especially praises Herbert Blomstedt, who shared tips about conducting the music of Bruckner.
She also appreciates the mentorship provided by the Boston Symphony’s music director, Andris Nelsons, whom she describes as the “kindest person ever and an absolutely extraordinary musician.”
If Rakitina’s upcoming engagements are any guide, her career appears ready to take off. She has podium debuts in 2022-23 scheduled with the Swedish Radio Symphony, Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France, Cincinnati Symphony and Baltimore Symphony.
Appearing with new ensembles, she said, is both exciting and nerve-racking. “Of course, when it’s big orchestras with big names, it’s even more stressful,” she said. “But it’s something you have to come through, and if you are successful, it’s worth it. And if it’s not, you just gain experience from it, and you go ahead.”
For most of classical music history, women conductors have been rarities at best. But Rakitina’s experience suggests that the situation is finally improving.
“Many orchestras and many organizations are now interested in inviting women, and audiences actually like seeing us onstage very much,” she said. “I can only say that I feel very fortunate to work and perform in such a friendly and open world.”