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The Symphony Hall Debuts of Canellakis and Benedetti, with the BSO

In this collage, Nicola Benedetti (left) rests her chin on her hand and smiles at the camera against a black background. She's wearing a dark green shirt and gold hoop earrings, and she has long, wavy, brown hair. Karina Canellakis (right) stands against a blue background and looks over her shoulder at the camera. She has green eyes and blonde hair that's pulled back into a ponytail. She wears a black blazer.
Franz Galo: Benedetti; Mathias Bothor: Canellakis
courtesy of Askonas Holt
Nicola Benedetti; Karina Canellakis

Saturday, September 23rd, 2023

In an encore broadcast, Karina Canellakis takes up her baton at Symphony Hall for the very first time in a folk-inspired Boston Symphony program that features Dvořák’s The Wood Dove and Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Nicola Benedetti makes her BSO debut with Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

Karina Canellakis, conductor
Nicola Benedetti, violin

Anton DVOŘÁK The Wood Dove
Karol SZYMANOWSKI Violin Concerto No. 2
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI Concerto for Orchestra

This concert was originally broadcast on January 21st, 2023 and is no longer available on demand.

Hear a preview of the program with Karina Canellakis in the audio player above, and read the transcript below:


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Karina Canellakis, who is here to conduct the Boston Symphony for the first time in this space, though, Karina, you have conducted the BSO a couple of times in the past. Thanks for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Karina Canellakis Nice to be here.

Brian McCreath You have some experience with the BSO, like I said, but at Tanglewood. Now that you've gotten through some of the rehearsals here at Symphony Hall, tell me your impressions of this place.

Karina Canellakis Well, I'm very impressed by the acoustics on stage. From a conductor perspective, when you're standing on the podium, there's a great clarity, and you can hear everything perfectly on stage, which is not the case, I would say, in a lot of other concert halls, which might have a beautiful sound, but there can be a little pocket somewhere here or there where you can't quite hear clearly. In this hall, it's a joy to rehearse in here because you can really tell what's going on. And I think for the players as well, they can hear each other pretty well on the stage. And it's a very beautiful hall.

Brian McCreath It is beautiful. But it's so interesting because we think of Symphony Hall from an audience perspective. It's a glorious place to hear a concert, almost not a bad seat in the house. But you're you're describing that experience right on the podium as being extra clear. And that's got to make a big difference for how you work with the orchestra.

Karina Canellakis Yes, it helps hugely in rehearsals if you feel that you can trust what you're hearing from the podium as opposed to having to rely on someone who's out in the hall. And every hall is a little bit different in that sense. I think on this program, the Szymanowski Violin Concerto, in particular, he was very enthusiastic with his dynamics. So, there's a lot of balancing that has to happen in rehearsal. And the orchestra has to play very, very sensitively and very soft and delicately in order for the soloist to be heard. And of course, in that situation, you depend on having a set of ears out in the hall during the rehearsals. But for the rest of the program, I've really been enjoying just being able to work with the musicians on the stage and be able to trust our ears right there on the stage.

Brian McCreath So this program, as you mentioned, Szymanowski, the Second Violin Concerto, is sort of at the middle of things. The Wood Dove by a Dvořák begins the program, and the Lutosławski Concerto for Orchestra. These are all rarely performed pieces, certainly here with the BSO. These pieces have not been performed to a large degree by the BSO. And I know that you and Nicola Benedetti have done the Szymanowski many times together. Is the Szymanowski the place where this program began in your discussions with the BSO about what to play?

Karina Canellakis I think it was definitely a very early part of the programing discussions. It's a piece that I love dearly. I think it's special, beautiful, unique. The colors that Szymanowski can sort of elicit from the orchestra are unique and extremely exotic at times. And Nicky and I are very close friends and colleagues and yes, have done this piece together. We've also done [Szymanowski's] First Concerto together with a number of different orchestras around the world. And we're both really, really excited to do it with the Boston Symphony. This is a very special thing for both of us to do this piece here with the Boston Symphony.

I think the rest of the program was also put together very quickly between [BSO Vice President for Artistic Planning] Tony Fogg and myself. We sort of identified the Lutosławski as being a piece that the orchestra would find refreshing and exciting because it's not as, let's say, overplayed, obviously, as the Bartók, which was written for this orchestra and commissioned by this this orchestra, you know, by Koussevitzky. So, the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra is something that everyone knows inside and out, and although very beloved, let's say, not as much of a discovery. And I think the Lutosławski is still very much a discovery for everybody. And finding sort of what the essence of the piece really is and why we're doing it and what the different parts actually mean, and contextually finding sort of a deeper meaning to this Concerto for Orchestra is something that's very enjoyable for all the musicians on stage.

Brian McCreath I want to return to the concerto, though, for just a minute, because you use the word unique and it is so with this concerto that it's... Szymanowski had a different idea for the role of the violin and the role of the orchestra compared to what we often think of with concertos. Can you describe that? Like, what's a listener in for when they sit down to hear this piece, especially if they haven't heard it before? You say exotic colors, but there's also this thing about the interaction that's not like other concertos. Can you describe that a little?

Karina Canellakis Mm hmm. There are many melodies that are passed around through the orchestra, so you'll hear a melody that begins with the violin, but then is continued by the flute and then the English horn and then the clarinet, and then the bassoon picks it up. And this melody is sort of weaving in and out of different solo instruments in the orchestra. It's mainly the woodwinds, but also, the First Horn and the First Trumpet have huge solo moments where they are also rhythmically weaving in and out of the solo violin part. So, in a way, it's sort of glorified chamber music written for a very colorful, large orchestra. And the other element that I think is unique to this concerto is just the sort of rhythmic backbone of, especially, the second half of the concerto, in the last part of the concerto. You have a lot of playing for the solo violin, a lot of playing on two strings, two strings at once, which gives it almost sort of a fiddler-type folk tune element and feeling. And the strings in the orchestra are doing the same thing a lot of the time. And they're playing sometimes ponticello, which means they play on the bridge, which produces a very metallic sound. They play sometimes pizzicato. They're sometimes playing col legno, which means they hit the wood of the bow on the string, which makes a percussive sound. They're sometimes bouncing the bow, what we call saltando, a bouncing bow. So, you get this [sings] And then, at the same time, we have the snare drum, and the percussion have a hugely important role in this piece, you know, triangle and snare drum, and the timpani has major solos. So, it is, in a way, a mini "concerto for orchestra," accompanying a solo violin, or let's say, featuring a solo violin. But there are many, many aspects of this piece that are, you know, symphonic.

Brian McCreath That's amazing. That's a fantastic description. And while I know that you know everything about all the instruments of the orchestra, this is very much spoken like a violinist, right? I mean, you have an intimate knowledge of all these techniques, so that's great. Thank you for that. And just another thing about the concerto, I can't resist asking because you say that you and Nicky were so excited to do this with the BSO. What is it about the BSO and this music that made you so excited to do this piece here in Boston?

Karina Canellakis Well, I mean, the Boston Symphony is a historical orchestra. It's one of the best orchestras in the entire world. And for me, personally, you know, having been with them twice at Tanglewood - we've done Tchaikovsky [Symphony No.] Four together, and we've done Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. And we also did Chopin F minor Piano Concerto last summer. So, I feel that I've done a little bit of different sort of repertoire with them, but more in the sort of big traditional Romantic vein. You know, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are composers that are often played, often heard. And this program is different because, as you said earlier, the three works on this program are rarely heard in general, but also rarely played by the Boston Symphony. So, to bring these works here to Boston and be able to kind of elicit all of these colors and all of these different effects from the orchestra and have the feeling that they also are enjoying playing this music because there's a novelty to it also for them. I think that's something that's very special about the choice of repertoire in this particular week.

Brian McCreath Tell me about your choice of The Wood Dove for the first piece on the program. Again, something that almost just doesn't get played at all because Dvořák symphonies are so great. If we're going to do Dvořák, or, you know, some of the overtures, they're so fun. But tell me about The Wood Dove and how long you've worked with this piece and how it sort of evolved into the right choice for this program.

Karina Canellakis Well, I find the four main Dvořák tone poems to be true masterpieces. This is one of the four. The other ones are The Noon Witch, The Water Goblin, and The Golden Spinning Wheel. Those are sort of the ones you usually hear. And these pieces are all based on, let's call it a fairy tale, even though they're extremely gruesome and, like, traumatizing, violent stories, not for kids. But these are sort of ballads that were written by the Czech writer Karel Jaromír Erben, who wrote the text for these. And the rhythms in the pieces actually correspond to the Czech language, to the rhythm of the Czech language, in the poems, in the writing of the fairy tale. And this Wood Dove, in particular, or The Wild Dove, as it's sometimes translated, is, I would say, one of the more songful of the four.

What they all have in common is they tell, very specifically and programmatically, the storyline, you know, of the actual action and the plot of this very bizarre story. And this particular piece is about a woman who murdered her husband. Just before we start, she murdered her husband so that she can marry her lover, basically. So, she, it starts off, she's at his funeral, and she's sort of feigning being in distress and mourning for him. And then there's a very sort of flamboyant, over-the-top wedding scene, which is her wedding with her new lover. And then we finally get to the actual dove, the bird. The bird comes in rather late in the piece. It's sort of halfway through. And this bird is sort of haunting the grave of her former husband and haunting her. And she eventually can't really handle the stress anymore, and she jumps in the river and drowns herself.

And at that point in the story, there's a, it's a big moment, which I think is hard to miss. There's a huge cymbal crash, and it's very dramatic. And the timpani is going crazy and the low strings are going crazy, [you] sort of can imagine her sinking to the bottom of the water, whatever this body of water is. And then there's sort of an epilogue at the end, which is sort of the, I guess, the moral of the story, or the sort of conclusive part of the story. And there's a beautiful chorale, small chorale that's played by the winds towards the very end. And then we have at the very end of the piece, a quite unusual part for the harp, who almost has the last say. The harp has a lot of solos in this piece. And at the end you hear just these repeated C naturals played very low down, by the harp, something that you wouldn't normally hear. Normally harps play sort of arpeggiated chords. This is just one repeated note on a very low string, followed by a low octave, which is very difficult to play, played by the Third and Fourth Horn, who end the piece with this low tone. So, you can imagine that we're down in the depths of the water at this point. And the nice thing about the piece is that it also begins with the Third and Fourth Horn on octaves, sort of foreshadowing everything else that is to come. So, it's a, in my mind, a perfect piece, a perfect description of this gruesome and strange, somewhat strange story.

Brian McCreath That's as a great description of it, by the way. So thank you for that. That's great. So, get back to Lutosławski real quick. It's such a brilliant piece, like, it does what a "concerto for orchestra" should do, which is show off the orchestra. But it feels like more than that, it's not just a showpiece. There's depth and drama in this piece. When did you learn the Concerto for Orchestra? Did you learn it as a violinist first and then later as a conductor? Or have you only known it as a conductor from that end of things? And what was it like to to really grapple with this piece and figure it out?

Karina Canellakis Hmm, good question. You're the only person who's ever asked me that. I never played this as a violinist. That is a really good point. And that just proves that it's not often programmed, because, you know, I was playing as a violinist in major orchestras for seven and a half, eight years professionally before I became a conductor. And I never played the Lutosławski. So that's sad because I think it's a true masterpiece. And it bears the title Concerto for Orchestra, but to be honest, it has little to do with the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, even though perhaps the title inspired him. The Bartók was written, you know, more or less ten years earlier. But the Lutosławski has, to me, a lot of him in it. It's also an important piece in his sort of journey as a composer, because it sort of marks the end of this style of composition before he went more sort of atonal and got, he got weirder after this. [laughs] This is sort of a little bit more accessible to listen to in terms of the tonality and the harmonies and the choice of harmonies. You know, Lutosławski was somebody who had a lot of suffering early in his life. His father was unfairly murdered when he was quite young. You know, war and the experience of war in the experience of having to sort of escape and be, I wouldn't go so far as to call him a refugee, but let's say, get away from a country because of violence, because of war, this is something that he was intimately familiar with, unfortunately, in the early part of his life. And I think that you can hear it in the music. You can hear this sort of... I mean, this is technically not a wartime piece. It was written between 1950 and 1954. He was working on it for about four years. So, World War Two was at that point over. But of course, you know, for anybody living at that time, the feeling of the Second World War and this sort of palpable sense of danger and of total destruction and destruction of your home and everything, you knew, this, I hear a lot of that in this concerto.

And especially in the first movement, the way it begins, just the timpani just gives you this relentless sort of clock, the death clock. And we have a melody which he marks agressivo, so, you know, to be played aggressively, which is passed around the orchestra. And this is a, you know, a Polish folk melody that was from the Warsaw area of Poland that he uses as material for this, what I would call a, in a way, a wartime atmosphere.

And the second movement is a complete contrast. It's, in terms of the sound world, starts off extremely soft. He writes pianissimo mormorando, so, to be sort of murmuring and whispering in the background. You know, it's night music, it makes me think of secretive, you know, Morse code messages being sent. And everything has to be played so delicately and so softly. The whole piece has an incredibly difficult role for the percussion. Percussion are very, very important in the piece. And it's fiendishly difficult, technically, to play, which is probably why it's not as often performed, let's say, as other pieces. You need a really top-level orchestra like the Boston Symphony to pull it off. And so, the second movement is in in A-B-A format. So, you start off with this murmuring, you know, Morse code thing, and then you have a middle section which is marked cantando, so it's to be sung. And this again brings you back a little bit to this sort of folk melody feeling. And the trumpets have this big melody at first, but then the strings take over it. And then we're brought back to the secretive world of this night music before finally we get to the third movement, which is, in a way, the meat and potatoes of the piece.

The third movement is in three parts. So, it starts off with a Passacaglia, meaning that it's a melody that's played by, at first, by the harp and the double basses. It's a melody that's eight measures long, so it's a sort of regular length melody that's repeated over and over and over again. But this repetition is masked very quickly by all sorts of other things going on and starts off with a solo for the English horn, who sort of very shyly comes in and comes on stage and sort of inserts himself into this Passacaglia at an unexpected moment. And then everyone starts to sort of pile on. They sort of say, Oh, okay. And they sort of start to mimic the character of this English horn. There are outbursts, there are screams that come right away where you have brilliant orchestration with the woodwinds playing very, very, very fast. [sings] And a snare drum having an accented, sudden accented note out of nowhere, trumpets, a lot of flutter tongues, so where they play basically as fast as you can possibly play repeated notes on an instrument. All sorts of effects like that. And it creates a sense of almost panic and extreme anxiety, and then suddenly, fades away and we're left with this very faraway melody in the first violins, punctuated by these pizzicato and piano chords. And that just fades into nothingness. We have a brief pause, and then we get into the second part of the movement, which is the Toccata, which is a very sort of rustic, folksy dance, in a way. And it's very rhythmic and it's exciting and everyone passes around this melody, this [sings], which is full of energy. And the Toccata then seamlessly gives way to the Chorale.

And this, sort of, the final section of the movement, which is so unexpected and so beautiful, and it starts off with the oboes and clarinets, who play this chorale based on a folk melody. And the flute then plays another Polish folk melody that [sings], and it's free. And you can imagine that all of a sudden, this sort of war-stricken Europe that he had been living in, it's as if he wanted that to just fade away. And he dreamt of a sort of idealized world where it was just his homeland and, you know, Poland and folk people and blue skies and everything sort of suddenly becomes very, very, sort of fairy, almost fairytale like, not like the Dvořák fairy tale, but, you know, a nice fairy tale, where we then have this beautiful chorale played by the brass and then played by the strings.

And then it starts to sort of spin out of control, and it gets faster and faster and it starts to sort of spin on itself and it turns into the final buildup of the piece, which starts off with the piccolos just playing very softly with the xylophone. [sings] And this is all based on the same thematic material. So, the Passacaglia melody is developed into the Toccata melody, which is then developed into this final section, the melodic backbone of this final section. And it just builds and builds and builds and it becomes so incredibly exciting. And just before the end, everything gets very quiet and you hear again, this sort of murmur, this underwater murmuring, this Morse code, this secretive world for a moment, punctuated by the harps, before it builds up. And we have then the Chorale played fortissimo by the brass, incredibly triumphant, and we go completely mad into a presto at the very end. It's incredibly fast, very exciting, and basically, just, it's a speeding train that just, you know, jumps off the edge of the cliff at the end. It's fantastic.

Brian McCreath That's an amazing description. Karina. Oh, my gosh. There's so much in what you've said. That's fantastic. Thank you. That's awesome. That's just great.

Just one more question and it's kind of a bigger picture question. I understand that, I don't know if it was your very first inklings about being a conductor, but some of the first impulses came when you were playing in Berlin with Simon Rattle as a conductor. And so, I don't know if it's enough to say that he's a mentor, or certainly he was a really important figure in your life as a conductor in making that leap out of the violin section to the podium. What's the most important bit of advice that Simon Rattle gave you about being a conductor?

Karina Canellakis Oh, that's going to be hard to answer because, you know, he's been, just, my biggest supporter basically, from the beginning. And I think probably the most valuable thing that he has said to me over the years and continues to say to me even now is just be yourself. And that means, you know, when you get in front of the orchestra, just make music and be yourself. And don't try to fit the mold of what you think a conductor is supposed to be or supposed to look like or supposed to sound like. Just be you, make music, work. And I love to work, you know? I love to discover different things every time I do a piece. Doesn't matter how, you know this Lutosławski, I've done it so many times at this point, and every time I discover something new or I find a sort of a new solution to the sort of the little pitfalls that happen with every orchestra. And it's just, you know, it's the same thing, I think, with a lot of musicians who just, you know, it's difficult what we do because you come day in, day out, you have to practice a lot. You have to study a lot. And the thing that keeps you going is just to always have this sense of awe and this sense of discovery every day in what you're doing. And also to have a joy that comes from being with your colleagues. And I certainly feel that here with the BSO, I mean, so many of the colleagues in the BSO I've known for so many years, and it's such a beautiful sort of relationship as it evolves now, with me being here at Symphony Hall, it's something I think really, really special, to be cherished.

Brian McCreath Karina Canellakis, it's really great to have you here in Boston. Thank you for a little bit of your time today. I really appreciate it.

Karina Canellakis Thank you.