Review: Linnebach, Canellakis power up the Southam Hall stage

Karina Canellakis in action in a concert in New York Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

It should not be a big deal, in 2018, to see a symphonic program where both the guest conductor and the soloist are women.

But it is.

Because while NACO violinist Jessica Linnebach and conductor Karina Canellakis are both too talented, experienced and professional to deserve cheap “girl power” labels, women on the podium are still the exception. And given the grim litany of #MeToo stories and allegations emerging from women in all areas of the performing arts, there’s something about hearing both these musicians at the top of their badass game that made you want to cheer.

Making her NACO debut Wednesday night, Canellakis scored right out of the starting gate with a performance of Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture that balanced earthy exuberance with meticulous detail. The opening fugue treatment of the theme sounded positively laser cut as it skipped through the string section. Canellakis’ physical vocabulary is quick, expressive and lively, with a clear, snappy stick technique. Like other conductors not blessed with lofty height, her gestures tend to emphasize vertical rather than horizontal space.

Jessica Linnebach’s musicianship is tailor-made for Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto: burly, burnt caramel sound, utterly fearless virtuosity and an ability to find warmth even in the deepest shadows. Her performance crackled with inner fire, gritty intensity giving way to moments of delicate, almost romantic lyricism. The second movement variations were richly nuanced and fluid — even when she is blazing through a thick swath of double stops, Linnebach’s playing never sounds rushed or harried. The unorthodox last movement is often played with more reserve and contemplation than the typical concerto finale. But even here Linnebach didn’t hold much back, her conclusion spirited and defiant.

Canellakis, a superb violinist in her own right and a former schoolmate of Linnebach’s, was a particularly sympathetic partner, providing the soloist with firm rhythmic energy and exceptionally attentive tonal colour.

In Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7,  Canellakis delivered passion and pathos. The opening movement was weighty with brooding stoicism, carried on the glowing gravitas of Larry Vine’s horn solos. The second movement was expressed with the tenderest affection and blue-sky calm; the Scherzo was gracefully articulated, nimble in its refined rusticism. The robust finale was propelled by an almost operatic sense of drama and fatalism; Canellakis allowing the tension to steam along irresistibly until the implacable end.

It’s a crying shame that the concert was so poorly attended — no doubt the freezing rain was a factor. The program repeats Thursday night; with some luck the weather gods will be more favourable.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.