How important is energy? When you attend an orchestral concert, does it make a big impact on your experience to have a conductor on the podium who exudes it? A very physical, demonstrative leader who adds a visual element to the music? A graceful dancer with the baton who can leave you exhausted by evening's end from just watching them?
If that's your kind of conductor, you'd like Karina Canellakis. She's an American conductor who leads an orchestra with a lot of physicality and a palpable passion for the music. This weekend, she helped the Minnesota Orchestra close its summer season, and Friday night's concert was largely powered by her fiery energy.
It helped that the bulk of the program (repeated Saturday evening) was given over to Peter Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, a piece bursting with bravado, drama and a touch of schmaltz. But even that work can fall prey to a perfunctory performance. Friday night's was anything but.
The orchestra threw itself into its interpretation as enthusiastically as Canellakis did her bouncing, leaping, full-bodied leadership. It was a deliciously theatrical performance, complemented by a very fine interpretation of a Mozart piano concerto from Jon Kimura Parker, leader of the orchestra's summer programming. It added up to an evening that was, of all things, fun.
Not that a Minnesota Orchestra concert shouldn't be fun, but Tchaikovsky's Fourth does have a dark undercurrent about the indomitability of fate and "dashed hopes," as Canellakis said while introducing it. The composer described the domineering trumpet theme that recurs in the symphony as akin to "the sword of Damocles" looming over each of us. Yet Canellakis approached the symphony with so much infectious enthusiasm that it felt more thrilling than daunting.
It helped that the excitement level at Orchestra Hall already was approaching fever pitch after the final two movements of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21. It would have been great to hear Parker display his artistry on the complete concerto, but the orchestra is trying to wrap concerts up in 90 intermission-less minutes while the delta variant continues to run amok. It also wanted to fit in a movement from a William Grant Still symphony — and a good thing it did, for it was a fine kaleidoscope of styles and moods, expertly played.
Parker confessed to a deep affection for Mozart's 21st concerto — his personalized license plate contains its catalog number — and his performance showed it, especially in a final-movement cadenza, bringing as sprightly and frolicsome a tone as one might expect from a comedic chase scene. A well-deserved standing ovation resulted in an ebullient encore of Mozart's oft-heard "Rondo alla Turca."
If this weekend's concerts are part of Canellakis' audition to succeed Osmo Vänskä as the Minnesota Orchestra's music director in 2022, you could say she passed with flying colors. She's a very confident conductor, one who uses big, sweeping gestures and seems intensely attuned to the music.
Whenever I became haunted by the thought that Canellakis might be more performative than interpretive, she would sculpt a section of the Tchaikovsky's slow movement into an engaging conversation between the cellos and woodwinds or summon up a surge of excitement from the delicately plucked Scherzo.
Mind you, sometimes Canellakis' energy was so high that shifts would get short shrift, as when a radical mood change didn't get the extra breath it needed in the finale. But she has an enjoyable style, and she and the orchestra displayed an admirable rapport.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org