Karina Canellakis debuts at Blossom with a stern Tchaikovsky

United StatesUnited States Blossom Music Festival [3]: Behzod Abduraimov (piano), Michael Sachs (trumpet), Cleveland Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (conductor). Blossom Music Center, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, 15.8.2021. (MSJ)

Karina Canellakis conducts the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

DvořákThe Wood Dove Op.110

Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor Op.35

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 in F minor Op.36

What is leadership? It’s a question that has many different answers, depending on the situation. In the case of an up-and-coming young conductor leading one of the world’s premier ensembles for the first time, it involves demonstrating a knowledge of scores; a knowledge of the interpretive traditions of those scores; and an ability to move beyond those elements to make the work come alive in the moment of performance. Karina Canellakis showed her assured mastery of the first two in her Cleveland Orchestra debut at the Blossom Music Festival, and her efficient gestures helped the performances achieve some of the last element.

If there was any issue with Canellakis’ performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4, it was the relentlessly stern determination to treat the work seriously, with broad tempi and sober seriousness. The work, indeed, deserves to be taken seriously; but there is also, arguably, a volatility that didn’t quite flare here because of how tightly Canellakis held the reins. I remember a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth a number of years back in Severance Hall with then-music director Christoph von Dohnányi, one of classical music’s most infamous control mavens. But in this piece, even Dohnányi let the orchestra build up a tremendous head of steam in places without trying to hold them back. Perhaps the next step for Canellakis, having demonstrated her sure-handed control, is to gain the confidence to hold the reins more loosely. It’s the most difficult – and most advanced – level of great leadership, and she might as well go for it because she clearly has built a foundation from which to grow. Granted, it is an even greater challenge for a female conductor in what has been a horribly male-dominated culture, but sooner or later a female conductor will emerge with top-level mastery and leave most of her male colleagues behind in the dust. This concert suggests that Canellakis will at least be in the running, though only time will show how much she can grow.

Her pacing for the first movement of the Tchaikovsky was broad, with attention to bringing shape to the phrases so that it never went on autopilot. This slow-burn approach worked well in the lively acoustics of the Blossom pavilion and gave the conductor room to nudge the tempo forward as the movement heated up. Canellakis made use of the old Russian tradition (heard most famously in Mariss Jansons’ performances) of sometimes breaking up a long crescendo by dropping back and rebuilding the swell of sound just before the end of the passage, though she didn’t push the end of the first movement nor the Finale as close to the edge as Jansons did.

The woodwinds had many starring moments in the symphony, including the ghostly waltz in the first movement. Frank Rosenwein provided the soul of the piece with his solos in the gentle melancholy of the second movement. The winds made the melodies of the Finale lyrical, between and among the spinning scales. The Scherzo, like almost every performance these days, was moderate and precise. I am not sure that adequately conveys the spirit of a movement Tchaikovsky himself said evoked tipsiness. Even the somber tempo couldn’t help all those pizzicato notes in the strings to be heard in the pavilion’s reverberant acoustic, so I would rather hear less detail and more life. (For a similarly woolly acoustic, one can compare what the conductor Pierre Monteux did with the Boston Symphony in his 1959 RCA recording: the tempo is quick, dynamic differences are pointed and phrase shapes are more important than the specific notes.) The Finale closed the performance satisfyingly without pushing to the edge and was received warmly by the audience.

One of the high points of the concert was Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto, featuring pianist Behzod Abduraimov with key moments for the orchestra’s principal trumpet, Michael Sachs. Abduraimov, wearing a precautionary mask, was not cautious in his musical approach. He relished Shostakovich’s wit and mischief and pushed his keyboard sound percussively where needed. The contrast with Sachs’ rich tone helped generate the emotional ebb and flow of the piece, which is important because there is more to it than just its famous playfulness. Abduraimov caught the sense of lurking unease behind the slow movement without attempting to overinflate the music. Canellakis presided with energy and poise.

The least familiar item on the program was Antonin Dvořák’s late tone poem The Wood Dove (Holoubek in the original Czech, and sometimes translated as The Wild Dove). It was a good throwback to the performance two weeks previously of the ‘New World’ Symphony, Dvořák’s last. Though the composer had triumphed in the world of symphonies, he effectively turned his back on the genre and spent his last years composing operas and orchestral tone poems, suggesting a growing interest in musical storytelling.

This piece retells an ancient folk tale about a woman who murdered her husband and then remarried with unseemly haste, only to have a trilling bird expose the truth. It is related to the same genre of story Mahler set in his early cantata Das klagende Lied. Dvořák was likewise inspired by a poetic version of a folk tale, but he opted not to set it for voices.

Dvořák’s four late tone poems all started with texts by the Czech poet Karel Erben. The composer derived many of his melodies by musically approximating Erben’s lines. Instead of setting them vocally, though, Dvořák used the melodies as the seeds of these works, of which The Wood Dove is last. The works focus less on symphonic growth and more on Czech linguistic rhythms and colors, which allowed Dvořák to concentrate on the atmosphere of these supernatural tales. In short, he was the advance guard of the musical storytelling that would soon flower with Leoš Janáček, who – not coincidentally – conducted the premiere of The Wood Dove.

For a festival performance, The Wood Dove was a bold choice, starting and ending quietly. Canellakis was quite unperturbed by distracting noises and cast the work’s spell effectively, vividly painting the narrative elements of the story without glossing over the spectral atmospheres. Making just its second appearance on a Cleveland Orchestra program, the work was a great chance to take comfort in Dvořák’s familiar genius while savoring a rarity.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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