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Canellakis Conducts the BSO in "Bluebeard's Castle"

In this collage photo, Karen Cargill (left) wears a black dress against a black background. She has a blond bob that's softly curled and blue eyes. She looks up at the camera, smiling. Karina Canellakis (center) wears a black blazer and stands against a dark blue background. She has blonde hair that's pulled back into a ponytail and hazel eyes. She stands in profile and looks over her shoulder at the camera and smiles softly. Nathan Berg (right) wears a gray, paisley shirt and stands against a black background. He has long brown hair, a beard, and brown eyes. He looks at the camera and smirks.
Nadine Boyd: Cargill; Mathias Bothor: Canellakis; IMG Artists: Berg
Courtesy of the Artists
Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill; conductor Karina Canellakis; bass-baritone Nathan Berg

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Encore broadcast on Monday, February 19

Karina Canellakis leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Bartók’s chilling and thrilling two-character opera Bluebeard’s Castle, based on the fable of the cruel duke whose new wife discovers his terrible past. Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill returns to Symphony Hall and German bass-baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle makes his BSO debut. Also returning to the BSO stage is cellist Alisa Weilerstein, performing Haydn’s playful Cello Concerto in C.

Karina Canellakis, conductor 
Alisa Weilerstein, cello 
Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano
Nathan Berg, bass-baritone 

Joseph HAYDN Cello Concerto in C
Béla BARTÓK Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

This concert is no longer available on demand.

For a libretto and translation of Duke Bluebeard's Castle, visit Colorado MahlerFest.

To hear a preview of Bluebeard's Castle and Haydn's Cello Concerto with conductor Karina Canellakis, use the player above, and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Karina Canellakis, so good to have you back here after last year's really thrilling concert of Lutoslawski and Szymanowski. That was a really wonderful concert. But this time it's Bluebeard's Castle from Bartók and the wonderful Alisa Weilerstein. Let me ask you about Bluebeard's Castle. How much of your relationship to this short opera is based in the weirdly psychological story of the opera, and how much in the music that Bartok wrote to express that opera?

Karina Canellakis Very good question. I mean, which comes first, the music or the text? It's always a question with any opera, with any programmatic music. Of course, there's the story line on the surface about a man who has a questionable past, who lives in a dark castle and keeps his wives in a locked room, and then brings a new one and locks her away at the end with them. But of course, that's not really what it's about. And the story is very much symbolic, representing, I think, looking back at one's own life, looking back at the different phases and stages of one's life, saying goodbye, saying goodbye to different periods, saying goodbye to youth. And I do find that to be a very important element of the piece, that to really understand the depth of symbolism in the story and in the words.

That being said, the music itself and the Hungarian language is so beautiful, the way that the rhythm of the words, the rhythm of the language, the way that Bartók wrote the rhythms for the players in the orchestra, to sort of weave around the text and highlight the text and highlight the meaning of the words, it's so brilliant. It's such a masterpiece, so one can enjoy the piece almost without knowing anything about the story. Although, you know, the best experience is definitely when you follow along with the text and have some kind of an understanding not to take the story too literally.

Brian McCreath Well, let me ask you this. I can think of almost no one better to ask this question to, given your recent Grammy nomination for a recording of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. That piece, very closely related to the Boston Symphony, but very much later in his life, and this piece coming pretty early on for him, do you see the thread between these pieces? Do you see the Bartók essence in both of them? And if one knew only the Concerto for Orchestra, how can you describe that essence as it appears in Bluebeard's Castle?

Karina Canellakis Well, it's interesting, because everything I was just saying about saying goodbye to life and saying goodbye to periods of your life or memories, it actually applies more to the state that Bartók himself was in when he wrote the Concerto for Orchestra, because it was written when he was very sick. He wrote it in the hospital in a matter of just basically days, just a few weeks. And he was in a very different state as a person and a very different time of his life than when he wrote Bluebeard's Castle, which was much earlier. So Concerto for Orchestra was 1943. Bluebeard's Castle is 1911. It's way, way earlier. And I definitely think that in the sort of feverish delirium he was in when he wrote the Concerto for Orchestra, he was almost purposefully, especially in the third movement, the Elegy of the Concerto, remembering Bluebeard's Castle, bringing it back. Certainly, the very beginning and the very end of Bluebeard's Castle are almost identical in even the notes themselves, the mood, the instrumentation, to the beginning of the Concerto for Orchestra, and also the beginning of the Elegy of the Concerto for Orchestra. So there are definitely a lot of similarities to draw, and then there are also a lot of differences between the two works, of course.

Brian McCreath Well, yes, one would evolve over three decades between one work and the other. Tell me about the challenges that this presents for the orchestra. We've talked about the thematic elements of the piece, the way that Bartók wrote the music in relation to the language. But on a purely execution level, by the players, what do you feel like the biggest challenges are for Bluebeard's Castle?

Karina Canellakis Well, one tricky element is the balance, because, depending on who's singing, you can have a wide variety of different interpretations of the roles. I think Karen Cargill, who's singing with us, has quite a lot of power, but there is also a sort of fragile element to Judith. She's a very determined woman who wants Bluebeard to open all of the doors of his past, and all of the doors of the castle. But at the same time, she's fragile, she's vulnerable. She's sometimes maybe even meant to be buried by the orchestra, swallowed up by the orchestra as she's sort of being swallowed up by the darkness of the castle, little by little, despite her efforts to sort of brighten things up. So the balance, there are moments that are written for a very delicate number of instruments. And then there are moments that just, I mean, literally blow the roof off of the concert hall, where, you know, you have the organ playing, you have extra brass players who actually step in from outside and add to this sort of bombastic nature. I'm thinking of the big, big C major moment when the so-called fifth door opens and he shows her his kingdom. I mean, literally the whole stage explodes with sound. But then you have Bluebeard actually singing in that section. So balancing it out, having it feel powerful, sound powerful, but still be able to hear the singers is a challenge.

And I think also with any kind of opera, any kind of orchestral work that is with singers, there is a tremendous amount of flexibility required from the players to really be on your toes. You cannot necessarily count on the next phrase or the next bar of music coming where you expect it. Sometimes you have to wait before you play something in a slightly unnatural way, because a singer has to actually take a breath. So there are multiple challenges, not to mention just technically playing the piece and having it sound folkloric and having it sound rhapsodic. These are all challenges for any orchestra.

Brian McCreath Tell me about Alisa Weilerstein. I imagine you people have worked together before, you and Alisa. Her playing is very special. But tell me what you hear, especially in relation to the Haydn concerto that she's playing. What is it that you hear her doing with that piece and how her playing really suits the ways that she's playing it?

Karina Canellakis Alisa and I have been friends for years and years and years and we love working together. It's a very, very special bond that we have, and we love to be on stage together. And she has just such a fantastic, effervescent, energetic interpretation of this piece. It's sort of a little bit on the lighter side, and we have a very, very small orchestra. So it's a huge contrast to the Bartók on the second half. And she has very quick, energetic tempi which give it a kind of a... It's almost like it just flies out. She always talks about the finale of the concerto being like popping a champagne cork, it's just, Boom! And then you're off, and it's bubbly and it's sparkly and it's just fun. And I just find that we're all sort of smiling through the whole thing because it's just so much fun to perform on stage with her.

Brian McCreath That's fantastic. Well, Karina Canellakis, it's great to have you back in Symphony Hall. Also looking forward to you being at Tanglewood this summer again, which is wonderful. So thanks a lot for your time today, I appreciate it.

Karina Canellakis Thanks. My pleasure.