Arts & Events

Karina Canellakis Makes A Stunning Debut with San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday November 02, 2019 - 10:56:00 AM

In an all-Russian program teeming with difficulties of all sorts, American conductor Karina Canellakis, a Greek-American born and raised in New York City, made a stunning local debut. In concerts Thursday-Saturday, October 24-26, Canellakis led the San Francisco Symphony in Dmitri Shostakovich’s sprawling Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Opus 60, Leningrad, preceded by

Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major with Alexander Gavrylyuk as soloist. I attended the Saturday, October 26, performance. Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, composed during Nazi Germany’s Siege of Leningrad in World War II, is notoriously all over the lot. However, Karina Canellakis led the orchestra with meticulous attention to detail. Whether bringing out the lyricism of certain passages with graceful sweeping motions of the arms or forcefully emphasising punctuations with vigorous jabs and thrusts with the baton, Karina Canellakis seemed totally engaged with the music.

Conceived by Shostakovich as a tribute to the people of Leningrad who, at immense loss, withstood a siege that lasted 872 days and took the lives of perhaps 1.5 million people, this symphony offers no literal evocations of war. There are no musical explosions of bombs and mortars. Shostakovich wrote that he was attempting to convey the experience of war emotionally. This is accomplished in the 7th Symphony’s first movement, which starts out as a musical evocation of the peaceful life in Leningrad and throughout Russia before the Nazi invasion. Strings and bassoons play in unison, and the mood is serene. Cathy Payne provided a lovely piccolo solo to enhance the mood. Soon, however, a sinister march begins, tattooed on the snare drum by principal percussionist Jacob Nissly. Little by little, this military march inexorably takes over musically, gaining in power through endless repetition, until nothing else can be heard but the drumbeat of jackboots. A bassoon solo here played by Stephen Paulson mourns the dead.

The second and third movements offer a respite. Shostakovich’s music wanders here and there, sometimes with wry humour in the scherzo, often evoking the broad expanses of the Russian homeland. Without a pause we move to the Finale. Here is where I find this 7th Symphony most maddening. The Finale proceeds in fits and starts. There are passages of fine music, but there is little sense of where this symphony is heading. Like the 872-day siege itself, one wonders if this symphony will ever end. Here, too, however, the attention to detail by Karina Canellakis, combined with the kinetic energy she brought to this music, created a sense of intense musical commitment. By the time this 7th Symphony came to a victorious close, we could well believe in Shostakovich’s conviction that the human spirit will win out against evil.  

Opening this concert was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major. Making his local debut was Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, who tore through this concerto at breakneck speed, emphasising technical prowess and power at the expense of feeling and nuance. Perhaps conductor Karina Canellakis should have exerted more control over the fast tempos Alexander Gavrylyuk imposed on the music. However, having stated in the program notes her profound regard for Gavrylyuk’s virtuosity, Canellakis gave him free rein. The results, as one might expect, were mixed. As an encore, Gavrylyuk offered more of the same in an overwrought performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s well-known Wedding March. One came away from this concert with a fervent wish that Karina Canellakis, who won the 2016 George Solti Conducting Award, might make frequent returns here to conduct the San Francisco Symphony. If she can succeed, as we just witnessed, in making a go of this difficult Russian program, let us hear what she can do with Mozart, Beethoven, et al.