Ruth Reinhardt Returns

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, Conductor, Guest Artist

As a full-time guest conductor, Ruth Reinhardt has to click with an orchestra in order to be invited back.

Reinhardt, who made her debut with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in May 2022, returns November 17-18 to conduct a subscription program anchored by Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

“You only go back if you have a connection,” she said. “I remembered what a beautiful warm sound they had, and I thought something like Mendelssohn or Brahms would be perfect.” To complement the Brahms, the orchestra will play Shostakovich’s second cello concerto with Andrei Ioniţă, and Rear-view, a 2022 piece by Jonathan Cziner which Reinhardt described as “beautiful and a little melancholy. It doesn’t sound tonal, but they’re all tonal chords without a cadence.”

Reinhardt has maintained a busy schedule of guest appearances in North America and Europe since leaving the Dallas Symphony’s assistant conductor role in 2018. “If you want to get further in your career, you have to leave at some point,” she said. “My two years in Dallas, I learned a lot from the orchestra and (then-music director) Jaap van Zweden. No matter where I have been, I have left when I felt I had learned the most it had to offer.”

But accepting a music directorship is “not something I’m desperate to do,” she said. “It needs to be the right fit and the right place. The lucky thing is, I have a choice. I really enjoy what I’m doing now – different countries, different repertoire, different levels of orchestras.”

As a child, she played violin and sang in a children’s choir. But at age 16, her youth orchestra leader gave her a chance to conduct, “and I immediately knew this was what I had been searching for without knowing it.”

Although she grew up in Saarbrucken, Germany, she has followed the typical American path to a conducting career. The traditional German method, she said slightly tongue-in-cheek, is to work as a rehearsal pianist and vocal coach in an opera house, “and if everyone else gets sick, you might jump in to conduct. In the United States, that’s never been the case. You win a competition or become an assistant conductor.”

The American model is that a full-time orchestra has a staff assistant conductor. In Milwaukee, for instance, Ryan Tani conducts educational concerts, serves as an understudy in case the conductor is ill, and offers input on sound from the auditorium during rehearsals. When Reinhardt conducts in Europe, she usually has to walk out into the hall herself to listen to balances while the orchestra plays without her.

Having skipped the opera house apprenticeship path, Reinhardt will make her opera debut in June when she conducts Verdi’s La Traviata in Stockholm. “I love opera as an art form,” she said, but conducting it is like “being asked if you would love to drive a Ferrari. If you’ve never owned a car, how would you know? I can tell you more in June, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Reinhardt arrives at a new orchestra with expectations of her own about what the music should sound like, but also with an openness to the musicians’ ideas. The days of the tyrannical conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and George Szell are past, but she points out that that’s part of a broader cultural shift. “Times are changing. It’s not just music, it’s everything,” she said. “Think about how companies were run in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

And she has learned how to be flexible. “Every orchestra needs something slightly different in terms of leadership and freedom,” she said. “Some orchestras like it, some don’t know what to do with it, so I adjust very quickly.” She remembers that the MSO did well with the rein she gave them, “but that’s not a judgment. If an orchestra has some freedom, then I won’t micromanage.”