Rhinegold Photo credit: © Masataka Suemitsu

Toby Deller

Meet the Maestro: Karina Canellakis

9:00, 15th February 2017

The winner of the 2016 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award talks to Toby Deller about her journey from being a rank-and-file violinist

‘The move to conducting, it’s still a mystery how it happened because I was so in love with playing the violin – I did a lot of quartets, I loved playing.’ A graduate of the Curtis Institute, Karina Canellakis was well into a flourishing career as a violinist, not only as a chamber musician and soloist but playing in orchestras too, notably the Chicago Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic, where she was a member of the orchestra’s academy for two years.

‘I think it was just the interest in the score study itself. I wasn’t frustrated that I didn’t have a voice in rehearsal because I didn’t feel that I had such special ideas about every piece we were playing, but what I did feel frustrated with was looking at just the one line. I remember sometimes bringing a mini score of whatever we were doing, keeping it in my bag and trying to look at it during the break. But it’s really hard to do that. Of course you can study the score outside of rehearsal but I just didn’t feel that I had enough contact with figuring out what is it about this piece that moves me such? Why do I love this music so much?’

Her curiosity, coupled with fervent encouragement from some such as Simon Rattle that she describes as ‘constant, not letting it go’, eventually led her to take a masters in conducting at Juilliard. But she says her years as a player have also been instructive, giving her an instinctive sense of the requirements of the musicians in front of her.

‘Unfortunately, orchestral musicians – and I know this because I was one – have a relentless job and they get a little bit tired of being given directives and also tired of not having their own voice. So as a conductor you can encourage them to feel that they do have a voice. I don’t mean a verbal voice in rehearsal but that they have the freedom to play a phrase the way they want, especially in the solo winds but even in the string section. Just to feel that they are inspired to do something that will be memorable on an emotional and spiritual basis and something that will remind them why they wanted to be a musician in the first place.’

After Juilliard, and having been granted a Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2013 (she went on to win the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award in 2016), Canellakis was appointed assistant conductor at the Dallas Symphony. She remained for two years before the amount of work she was being offered elsewhere, in the US, Europe and Asia, meant she had to move on. Ironically, it may have been the very platform that Dallas provided that gave her this impetus as it was there, in 2014, that she was asked to substitute at the last minute for the orchestra’s music director, Jaap van Zweden.

‘The first time it happened, a month after I started as the assistant in Dallas, I was stepping in on a Saturday night subscription to conduct Shostakovich Eight and the soloist was Emmanuel Ax in a Mozart concerto. That was definitely a huge moment. And the reason it was a huge moment was not because of reviews or whatever, it was because I didn’t know I could do that before then. So to have someone take the boot and literally kick me out on stage and say: go, there’s nobody else can do this tonight, you have to do it … To have the feeling that you don’t have the choice, you’ve just got to muster up the courage and do it, that was a huge moment for me because I realised I could do it.’

A string of similar opportunities followed, including replacing Harnoncourt at the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 2015. So by the time van Zweden called on her a second time, in 2016 (Shostakovich again, this time the even longer seventh symphony), she was familiar with the experience.

‘I became this person that they would call to do stuff at the last minute because they knew I could. All of a sudden I became this person that I never dreamt I would be: the person that had the big guts. Then you maybe realise that your self-image is totally false and – maybe it’s societal, who knows – we all have an image of ourselves that the most of the time is very inaccurate. So to realise what I’m actually made of and to realise: wow, maybe this conducting thing, not only is it something I’m starting to love but it’s actually the most natural way of music-making for me.’

Karina Canellakis conducts the Oxford Philharmonic at the Sheldonian Theatre on 28 January, the Royal Northern Sinfonia at the Sage Gateshead on 10 February, the RSNO at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 10 May and the CBSO at Birmingham Symphony Hall on 17 May.

1982 Born in New York
2004 Graduates from Curtis Institute, studying violin with Ida Kavafian
2005-7 Attends Berlin Philharmonic Academy as violinist
2011-13 Takes masters in conducting at Juilliard, studying with Alan Gilbert
2013 Awarded Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship
2014-16 Assistant conductor, Dallas Symphony
2016 Wins Georg Solti Conducting Award

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