IN: Reviews

A Darkened Symphony Hall


Nicola Benedetti (file photo)

Violinist Nicola Benedetti and conductor Karina Canellakis debuted together at Symphony Hall in Karol Szymanowski’s 1933 concerto. How coincidental that Dvořák’s The Wild Dove (not played by the BSO since 1905), paired with a current nearby high-profile murder case. Along with Witold Lutoslawski’s mid-20th century Concerto for Orchestra, a certain esthetic pall hung over Boston’s revered Hall. Yet, through her conducting, Canellakis shed light, making music visible, and in that regard, lit up the room. For listeners new to these compositions, the three works might appear more similar than they truly are.

 Haunting cooing from the orchestra chilled Symphony Hall in its opener, The Wild Dove, under Canellakis. The tone poem recounts the tale of a woman who poisons her husband, marries a younger man, and commits suicide upon hearing that bird’s soft murmurs. Thursday evening, the 41-year-old New Yorker Canellakis revealed to the Boston audience why she currently holds top positions at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. A violinist herself, Canellakis accepted Simon Rattle’s advice to take up conducting.

A sustained kinetic energy from the podium made for a very watchable Canellakis throughout the evening, even so in the Violin Concerto No. 2 of Szymanowski featuring Nicola Benedetti. Why play Szymanowski might be answered by her prizewinning performance of that composer’s first violin concerto. Since then, Benedetti has gone on to play with major orchestras around the world recording a handful of albums, one of which won a Grammy. She has been quoted as wanting to “shake things up”—and that she did.

The young violinist brought to the 20-minute nonstop concerto a broad sound energy with an intensely opulent vibrato easily reaching the farthest second balcony from the stage. She brought a highly charged reckoning of doubling and tripling up on strings in fast tempo also nonstop through the two-minute-plus cadenza that splits the work in two. Toward the end, she posed long held lyrical notes with artistry and poetry through a leaning bow describing teardrops.

The Szymanowski is not always the easiest to follow, one reason being its deep, slowly moving harmonic underpinning that darkens the entire piece. If that is to be thought of as waves, the violin then might be understood as some glittering element, and the orchestra’s instruments as a reflection of various watery hues. The large orchestra sometimes overshadowed the subtleties, of Szymanowski, especially in the composition’s many builds, or big waves.

Karina Canellakis (file photo)

Not surprisingly then, in addition to a cold, rainy New England night, attendance was on the low side. Surprisingly, though, those who did attend called Benedetti and Karina Canellakis back with round-after-round of applause and cheers declaring their approval. This would also be the case for a third Slavic work on an unusual program.

Symphony continued to darken—vividly—with powerful, strong feelings and clear images in the mind by way of Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. The mid-20th-century concerto echoed Bartók’s treasured example from only a few years earlier. The two concertos, though, exist miles apart. With this Polish composer, subtlety is not the word as with Szymanowski. Wavelike flows yield to stretches of textures in bold geometrics.

Beginning the first movement, the tympanist loudly resounds a single threatening note that continues well into the first movement. Ending the movement, the celesta resounds over and again that impending note high up. What could be darker than the double basses plucking their lowest tones slowly spaced out—the other side of awe? With Canellakis leading an expanded BSO, the Lutoslawski concerto would shine especially in the middle movement with glamorized woodwinds and in the Bartók-inspired chorale with tantalizing brass. The entire BSO lifted to virtuosic display, Canellakis diverting darkness with extremely rhythmized timbres and brightened textures characterizing this striking performance.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Just came from the Friday concert and this is in every way a spot-on description of what we just heard. Benedetti was thrilling and Canellakis was a locus of kinetic energy. Lutoslawski never disappoints. We should hear this piece more often.

    Comment by Leon Golub — January 20, 2023 at 4:24 pm

  2. Hmmm…we were at Thursday night’s concert and left it feeling indifferent. The Dvorak was lovely and beautifully played by the BSO. The Szymanowski…well, his 1st violin concerto is a much more compelling work. Maybe if I heard the 2nd live with a different violinist I’d feel differently about it, but I wasn’t particularly a fan of Benedetti as a violinist. In spite of the considerable energy she brought to her performance, I didn’t care for her sound. I’m not a violin player so forgive me if this comes across as nutty, but she had a thin, scraggly sound that came across as forced out rather than organically emanating outward. Let’s just call her the violin version of raspy “singer” Ray Lamontagne. I can best characterize her playing by comparison – it’s the opposite of Maxim Vengerov and his rich, enveloping sound. It wasn’t unbearable to sit through, but it did nothing for either my husband or I. As for the Lutoslawski, it was the first time I’d heard the work, and again it wasn’t painful to sit through, but there was nothing in it that grabbed and made me think I wanted to hear it again, let alone go order a CD to listen to at home. Others will differ. It just struck me as an extremely minor and inconsequential work when compared to so much great music in the repertory.

    I’d be interested in hearing Karina Canellakis conducting a program of standard repertory. I’m left with no particular opinion of her as to her strengths and/or weaknesses as a conductor or interpreter. With what we heard, it felt like there was nothing to grab onto.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 21, 2023 at 7:48 am

  3. Surprised by what I am reading here and elsewhere about the Lutoslawski. It deserves to be better known. Seiji Ozawa conducted it fabulously well (especially in 2000 at Tanglewood) and has a benchmark recording of it with the Chicago Symphony (Angel/EMI). I was surprised that Robert Kirzinger didn’t cite it in the program book.
    It was a wonderful program.
    Karina Canellakis conducted some standard repertory at Tanglewood these past two summers. Perhaps Mr. Eiseman can call up those reviews.
    I found her to be very solid, if a bit dramatically relentless. Perhaps the Lutoslawski would have come off better to Mogulmeister, if the heat had been turned down in a few spots.

    Comment by Brian Bell — January 21, 2023 at 8:48 am

  4. Here is a BMInt review of Karen Canellakis with the BSO in standard rep:

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 21, 2023 at 12:41 pm

  5. Reading this review by the superb music critic Steven Ledbetter of a prior concert conducted by Canellakis, which I also heard, makes me wish he had covered this one, too.

    Comment by Bettina a norton — January 21, 2023 at 1:45 pm

  6. Actually, Dvorak write “The Wood Dove” not “The Wild Dove”, Mr. Patterson.

    Comment by DJ Smith — January 21, 2023 at 7:54 pm

  7. Indeed, DJ Smith. For further edification, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin is,in English, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. By the same token, to follow the bent in that same sentence, the Netherlands Radio Symphony is the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — January 22, 2023 at 6:13 am

  8. From LMSLP: “The Czech title Holoubek is sometimes translated into English as “The Wood Dove”, but appears more accuratley as “The Wild Dove” in Grove’s Dictionary and in Burghauser’s thematic catalogue, as well as the collected works of K. J. Erben, on whose folk-tale Dvořák’s symphonic poem is based.
    Version History.”

    Comment by Leon Golub — January 22, 2023 at 9:34 am

  9. Speaking of Dvorak’s Wood/Wild Dove: Canellakis nicely brought out the late Romantic undertones of fascination for depth-psychology and for the mystery of conscience that created such a rich context for Freud to emerge in 1900 with “The Interpretation of Dreams”. The folktale of a chattering bird revealing a hidden crime is described as far back as Montaigne’s Essay “On Conscience,” but Dvorak used music to imply hidden dimensions of suppressed affect. The “older first husband” who is abandoned for a “younger man” and whose corpse triggers unmanageable guilt sounds a lot like a daughter’s submerged oedipal feelings…

    Comment by Ashley — January 22, 2023 at 10:19 am

  10. One of the joys of my life was watching Ms. Canellakis grow as an assistant conductor under Jaap van Zewden in the 2010’s at the Dallas Symphony. Maestro van Zewden had an uncanny ability to infuse zest into a performance by carefully dotting all the musical i’s and precisely crossing every t. Ms. Canellakis solidly demonstrated these skills beginning with her first time on the podium.
    The week after her visit to the BSO, Ms. Canellakis raised her button for DSO performances of The Wood Dove and the Concerto for Orchestra, with results equal to those described above. I found The Wood Dove especially captivating.
    With kudos for eschewing advertising, I wish to thank this fourm for providing the opportunity to extol a few of Ms. Canellakis’ accomplishments and to wish her many more years sharing musical joy with audiences worldwide.

    Comment by Ralph Weber — February 1, 2023 at 10:39 am

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