Karina Canellakis: Has baton, will travel

Karina Canellakis. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

She is, without doubt, one of the most in-demand freelance conductors around these days.

The proof is in her upcoming schedule which will take her from her Ottawa debut, in which she leads the NAC Orchestra in two concerts tonight and Thursday, to Phoenix, Arizona, to Copenhagen, Denmark, to The Netherlands and back to Utah with other stops along the way just in the next few weeks.

This career of hers has blossomed since 2014, when the newly graduated conductor was hired to work at the Dallas Symphony. Almost as soon as she got there, her boss, music director Jaap van Zweden had a shoulder injury and couldn’t go on.

To top that off, she was conducting a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8, a massive work, with the featured soloist, the well-known pianist Emanuel Ax.

Hollywood probably couldn’t have scripted this any better.

“It was a big moment. And it’s definitely not overblown in how it has been portrayed,” she said in an interview conducted before she directed NACO though a program that includes Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.

“It was the repertoire that made it so monumental in my life. Shostakovich 8 is not the kind of  piece that a young conductor gets anywhere near normally. I had been studying it and was prepared to jump in because that was my job as assistant conductor.

“But there is a difference between having a job and having the reality of doing it. And then Emanuel Ax was the soloist. It was a surreal experience even though he’s the nicest person in the world.

“It was very overwhelming. It was only my fifth week on the job. I was shortly out of Juilliard, I was very green, not just in experience but in my confidence as a conductor and I didn’t know how it was going to go.”

There are many assistant conductors who don’t get that kind of experience, she noted.

“I just didn’t know what was going to happen to me. And for that to happen so quickly and have an experience in which I saw that I could do it and take this group of people through this long and very heavy symphony and make it work and make sense … that gave me a new sense of feeling I had made right decision to be a conductor. This is something that I can do.”

Conducting you might say is in her blood although she didn’t start there. Her father Martin, in fact is a conductor of note. The rest of her immediate family is music with her borther playing the cello and mother playing the piano.

She originally studied the violin starting at age 3. She studied at the Curtis Institute of Music where she met tonight’s soloist and associate concertmaster of NACO Jessica Linnebach.

“We overlapped for a year at Curtis,” she said. “We are having a reunion.”

Canellakis’s trip to the podium is “not a linear path. I can definitely say I never intended to spend as much time away from the fiddle as I do now. I never dreamt it would be OK with me and the fact that it is OK with me now is a testament to this discovery that happened when I started committing my time to conducting.

“I realized it was more suited to me than playing the violin.

“I was very unaware when I first started conducting of the real aspects of being a conductor. I didn’t ever think about the amount of travelling and the demands on you. The amount of decision-making was certainly not anything that I ever thought about.

Her interest, she says, “came from just wanting to study scores. I was having a very emotional reaction from certain pieces in the repertoire and I wanted to know why I felt this way. Why does that piece give me goosebumps at this moment?

“Even at Curtis I was always very nerdy about checking out scores. I wanted to know how composers came up with something. I wanted to figure things out, but I never imagined myself doing it, even though I would dream of it sometimes. I never thought it was a realistic career.”

There are so many pieces that have an impact on her but she does recall playing Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 when she was a violinist with the legendary Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I was in the first violin section. I know exactly where I was sitting on the stage. It was conducted by Christian Thielemann and it was an incredible experience. The sound he got from the orchestra was very unique.”

She also recalls her very first week with the same orchestra and the guest conductor Seiji Ozawa conducted  the Shostakovich 10 from memory.

“It was so ingrained in his being. It was like he embodied the soul of the music. He was the piece. It was really inspiring.”

When Sir Simon Rattle began to encourage her to take up the baton, she started to get more serious about the idea. Soon enough she was a Juilliard studying the discipline and then she snagged the job in Dallas.

Things have happened quickly after the debut in Texas. And another last minute substitution accelerated the pace. She was asked to fill in for a performance with The Chamber Orchestra of Europe playing Dvorak in 2015. She did a week there and it went well.

The Chamber Orchestra is made up of musicians from across the continent and when they went back to their home ensembles, they mentioned her name to their bosses.

“All of a sudden I had work with all the major European orchestras the next season.”

Even though it seems like a quick rise, she is ready for it. Part of that maturity comes from the fact that she is, in her words, “not a young conductor. I’m 36. It’s not like this all happened when I was 23. I also had years and years of playing in orchestra as a professional. So the repertoire is very much in my system. Add to that my time at Curtis and studying conducting on my own which was extensive. Plus my father was a conductor and I started taking lessons at 12.

“It was long time coming. I resisted (initially) because of my commitment to playing the violin. Anyone who plays the violin knows you have to practice a lot and take care of the body. We all have these things that we are careful about.”

Conducting, it turns out, is also highly physical in a very different way, she says.

Some conductors who play the violin will play and conduct at the same time. NACO’s former director Pinchas Zukerman did it regularly. Canellakis says she does this as well, but these days less and less.

“I’m doing operas now and other enormous repertoire and it just takes too much time.”

And she has other pursuits.

“I just did my first Russian piece, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s The Bells (a choral symphony). I learned some Russian for this. It’s my father’s native language and so that was an exploration of my own heritage. My father’s mother  was Russian. I listened to them speaking Russian my whole childhood.”

Learning languages is a passion

“I love languages. I speak four and I want to master Russian as well. It’s my passion and I’m pretty quick with it. There are a lot of things that I’m not quick with but languages just work. It’s so exciting, like studying a score.”

Right now Canellakis is enjoying being a freelancer. She is developing strong relationships with certain orchestras around the globe but she’s in no hurry to sign on with an orchestra.

“We just have to see where the cards fall. For now, I’m letting things play out. It’s often a question of timing.”

As for the fact that she is a woman and there are very few female conductors, Canellakis says “I never think about it. I get asked about it a lot, but I never think about it. Orchestras notice especially on the first day of rehearsal. That still goes through people’s minds because most of the time it’s a man. It’s normal reaction.

“The novelty is going to be noticed on a human level but I never feel that it is (noticed) after we get to know each other. It’s just me.”

Rather than more female conductors, Canellakis believes “the profession would benefit from more real musicians on the podium and more real musicians in administrative positions with orchestras. Real musicians who are in the game for the right reasons.

“I didn’t want to be a conductor for a long time because of the way my colleagues would talk about conductors. There can be a lot of superficiality associated with it. When you play an instrument you can’t fake it. You have to have the chops and be able to stand on your own two feet.

“People in the orchestra can tell the difference. It’s more relaxed and it’s just about making music then. That is the only thing that should be happening in the room it shouldn’t be a power struggle.

“It’s not about showing off how great you are because you can conduct a concerto from memory. That’s great if it’s how you roll. But a lot of young conductors will do things purposefully for show and this is really unnecessary. It’s not about you, it’s about the music.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.