Karina Canellakis


Author: Emma Baker


You have just completed your first Season as Assistant Conductor of the Dallas Symphony – how has that been?
It’s been life-changing. My life is very different from what it was a year ago. In Dallas, I am conducting the orchestra all the time, unlike some other assistant positions. The players see my face on the podium as much as they see the music director’s, and that’s a really great way to learn to work with an orchestra on a regular basis. It’s the best possible preparation for having a music directorship of my own one day, because I’m getting used to what it’s like to manage the same group over and over; on the one hand keeping things fresh and fun and pleasant, but also having the highest standards of excellence, a standard that the musicians know I will expect when I’m there in front of them. It’s certainly been an extremely intense season in terms of the workload and repertoire.

You started out as a violinist; how did you make the move to conducting?
I’d flirted with the idea of trying it out for a long time – probably since I was 12. My father is a conductor, my mother is a pianist, and my brother, who is a cellist, and I took conducting class and worked with youth orchestras. However many violinists are neurotic about practice and any time you spend away from playing the violin. That was probably one of the main reasons I didn’t pursue it at first, but I had a couple of mentors who encouraged me.

The first was Simon Rattle – who I knew from the Berlin Academy and Curtis and he’d heard me play and do chamber music. He said ‘I really think you should pursue this – you have a quality that’s not teachable.’ Later at Juilliard, Alan Gilbert said: ‘Karina, try the conducting programme and don’t worry about time away from the violin, just go for it.’ After a year I had completely fallen in love with the whole process – studying a score, getting up in front of the orchestra, rehearsing people, breathing with the woodwind, watching the string section, feeling this incredible mass of sound envelop you.

The last few months have been pretty intense for you, including stepping in for Harnoncourt with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe recently. How did that come about?
It’s certainly been a little crazy, but really exciting. Funnily enough I was doing another jump-in, I’d been called with a week’s notice to conduct two different programmes for the North Carolina Symphony, in an all-Russian festival. A few days later I had my debut with the Houston Symphony. The afternoon of the concert, I got the invitation to replace Harnoncourt. So I did the concert, hurried back to Dallas, repacked my suitcase and the next day I flew to Austria to start rehearsing. It was a Dvořák concert, and I had to learn the tone-poem The Golden Spinning Wheel from scratch; I had never even played it as a violinist. But when I got there I found that not one single member of the COE knew it either. So we all discovered the piece together, which was lovely.

Now your conducting career is really taking off, do you feel yourself gravitating towards a particular strand of repertoire?
That’s hard to answer – I’m the sort of musician who becomes completely obsessed with whatever I am studying at the moment and think that work is the greatest thing ever written; I then move on the next project and I’m in exactly the same position. Lately I have been doing a lot of hefty Russian Romantic works, and Dvořák. I’ve been conducting a lot of Bernstein, not only with Dallas but with other US orchestras, though I feel that Dallas in particular has a special sound for the repertoire. I am starting to feel that Bernstein is a composer I am particularly at home with. On the other hand I’ve been totally obsessed for some time now with Wagner and Strauss, which all began when I was studying at Juilliard with Fabio Luisi. He was doing the Ring cycle at the Met and I was observing his rehearsals. I am getting to conduct the symphonic suite from Die Frau ohne Schatten in Hong Kong this fall. The opera is one of my very favourite works so I’m really excited about that.

What is your view of the continuing media scrutiny over the growing presence of female conductors? Do you believe in positive discrimination?
Personally, it has never been an issue for me. I’ve never encountered a situation where I am singled out, for good or bad. I’ve always felt like one of the guys. But I guess that also tells you something – that I feel like one of the guys! I may get into trouble for saying this but I believe very strongly that female conductors don’t need help, not any more. If you are going to do well it should be because musicians want to work with you, and you make orchestras sound phenomenal, not through some affirmative action programme. I don’t know why there are still so few female conductors, but there are definitely a lot more now who are my age and older, who are now starting to gain a lot of respect. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Marin Alsop because she was the one who broke down the barriers. It was extremely difficult for her and she paved the way for the rest of us.

What are your special qualities as a conductor?
I work extremely hard, and I am always prepared. That means that when unexpected opportunities come up, as the last few months have demonstrated, I’m ready to grab them and take full advantage. But I have no sense of entitlement to what I’m doing, no big ego, and somehow that seems to be helping me in this field too; people find they can relax a little bit more about me. I love managing people. With an orchestra it’s really important to get everyone to listen to each other, that is a goal that a lot of conductors forget about, they get caught up with their interpretation. That’s what people said about Abbado in Berlin: he encouraged listening and his big thing was that if you just listen to each other in rehearsal, the balance automatically gets fixed.

What are your plans for the future?
All I tend to think about is right now, the effort of what I’m doing and the music that I’m studying, and I don’t really have a career plan. I would love to conduct Wagner’s Ring one day, but that’s not how I get there. I can’t say how and when, but of course I would love to have directorships of both a symphony orchestra and an opera company, and do a host of music from contemporary to baroque on the violin. It sounds a little cheesy but I do feel that the world is my oyster.

So far it’s been like a ride on a giant tidal wave – I don’t know where it’s going but it’s thrilling and satisfying. Any conductor will tell you – you have to study, study, study. It’s a weird life because you give up so much free time, but the pay-off is incredible: the repertoire, getting to work with amazing musicians, the travel. It is a fascinating existence and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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