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.
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.