Late in the middle of the night on Friday, October 3rd, Karina Canellakis found out that she was about to have a big weekend. Due to pain from a pesky shoulder injury, Dallas Symphony Orchestra Music Director Jaap van Zweden decided on Friday night that, after rehearsing the orchestra all week and conducting concerts on Thursday and Friday, he needed to step down from the podium for the remainder of the weekend. For the orchestra’s Saturday and Sunday concerts, he passed the baton to Canellakis, the DSO’s new Assistant Conductor.
“That’s just part of my job,” Canellakis told me last week when I met her at the Meyerson Symphony Center to talk about what it was like to take over conducting duties at the last minute. As Assistant Conductor, Canellakis acts as Van Zweden’s cover conductor, which means that every week that he is conducting, she carefully studies the music the orchestra is playing, attends all rehearsals, and is prepared to take Van Zweden’s place at a moment’s notice if necessary.
“I think when you’re the Assistant Conductor, you remain in a slightly on-edge state all the time because you just don’t ever know,” she says. “[I have] to be ready for anything. All the way back from when the orchestra played Mahler’s Ninth Symphony [in mid-September], I was preparing, just in case. I didn’t ever actually think that [Van Zweden] would cancel, because he typically powers through even when something hurts. But this was extreme. He had to go take care of himself.”
So what is it like to find yourself on such a big stage at such short notice?“It was exciting, very exciting,” says Canellakis. For her, nerves aren’t a big factor when she’s conducting. “I find concerts to just be really exciting,” she explains. “The only thing that I ever get nervous for is a first rehearsal with an orchestra that I don’t know, because you have to say things and you don’t know how they’re going to react to your voice. But for concerts, I always just get really, really excited because I love that whole atmosphere so much. Everyone sits up and rises to the occasion.”
Canellakis began her musical career as a violinist. The daughter of two musicians – her father is a conductor and her mother is a pianist – she grew up surrounded by music. She remembers going to hear her dad conduct orchestra concerts as a very little girl and falling asleep in her mom’s lap. At age three, she saw Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street and asked her parents for a violin.
Before turning to conducting, Canellakis earned a Bachelor’s degree in violin from the Curtis Institute of Music and launched a successful career as a violinist, performing on a regular basis with both the Chicago Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic as well as soloing with orchestras across the U.S. Even as her conducting career takes off, she still finds time to practice the violin every day. As she puts it, “I just go with my heart in life, and I love playing the violin.” She’s not ready to set aside something that has been such a huge part of her life. “I worked for so many years from the time I was a little child,” she explains. “I think it would be too bad to just let it go.”
When she decided to study conducting at Juilliard for her master’s degree, Canellakis was again following her heart. “I think I’ve always wanted to do this, even if I didn’t know it,” she says. “Conducting is what feels the most natural to me for who I am. It utilizes every part of me. I was a big sports player when I was a kid, and there’s a sporty athletic part of me that never really got utilized as a violinist. But beyond that, conducting just combines a lot of different aspects of who I am in a perfect way: it’s physical, it’s intellectually challenging and then, of course, there’s a social aspect to it, too.”
Keeping the beat and signaling to musicians during a concert is only part of a conductor’s job. Much of a conductor’s daily work involves the conscientious study of musical scores. Even before the first rehearsal with musicians, a good conductor meticulously learns each section’s parts and makes informed decisions about tempi and interpretation. There’s a seriousness and intensity to Canellakis’ personality that clearly drives her dedication to deep, careful studying of symphonic repertoire. “I’ve always been a score person,” she laughs. “You know, very studious and very dorky.” She agrees with—and was deeply influenced by—her father, who, she says, “thought every musician should study conducting and study scores.”
There’s a duality to Canellakis’ disposition: she is equal parts serious and playful, and she seems to have the most fun when she is working the hardest. She went to Juilliard to study conducting because she wanted to be well trained, but in the midst of all the studying, she “also just fell in love with being [on the podium].” Her eyes light up as she talks about what she loves about conducting: “There’s the communication with musicians and that kind of eye-contact that you get with, say, a woodwind player right before they play a beautiful solo—those little moments are so emotional and gratifying. I live for those moments.” She’s also clearly energized by the prospect of a travel-filled, highly competitive career: “I like the thrill-ride of what I’m doing. I don’t foresee that every changing,” says Canellakis.
Although I had already heard Jaap van Zweden conduct the program on a Thursday night, I went back to the Meyerson on the following Sunday to watch Canellakis take her turn at leading the DSO through Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. Eight. Visually, Canellakis’ style at the podium is very different from Van Zweden’s. “He’s very strong and kind of compact, whereas I’m kind of thin, I’m a woman, and I have these thin, long arms,” says Canalleakis. “Even the way I carry myself, the way I walk, it’s different. Body type and the way you move in your body are a huge aspect of conducting, as are your facial expressions.”
The musical result Canellakis got from the DSO during an early October performance I attended was convincing and artistically compelling. During the Mozart concerto (featuring soloist Emanuel Ax at the piano), each phrase sighed elegantly and there was a gentle, dancing lilt to the piece. Canellakis also handled the complex meters and rhythms of the Shostakovich with confidence and clarity. The orchestra responded energetically to her unique gestures and facial expressions.
When I met with her following the performance, I asked Canellakis if she felt like she was just doing her best to convey Van Zweden’s vision for the music that Sunday, or if she felt she was able to make the performance her own. “Of course I’d heard him rehearse all week,” she said. “That’s part of my job. Every single thing he says to the orchestra, I either remember it or make note of it in the score. That was very important in the Shostakovich because it’s a very complicated piece and I had written down very detailed things about the way he was beating. So when I had to step in, the orchestra didn’t have any surprises. That being said, I felt absolutely that [the performance] was mine. The only thing I can do when I go up there is be myself.”
Being herself means, in part, being a woman in what is still a profession dominated by men. But for Canellakis that is a moot point. She argues, “The only thing that is different for orchestras or audiences is just that seeing a woman at the podium is still a novelty. It’s like anything else in life,” she says. “If you’ve never had a certain kind of dessert before and you try it, you think, ‘Wow! That’s Amazing,’ but if you have it every day, you get over it really quickly.”
I asked her when she thinks the disparity between genders in her profession will even out. “I think the more young women just study conducting without any regard to gender, like, just totally ignore it and just do it, that will help,” she says. “It’s hard to say how long it will take, but it will happen eventually.” She says that whether it takes 25 years or a century for the number of women conductors to equal that of men, what’s important is that audiences just get used to seeing women in that role.
Every time Canellakis takes the podium, whether she intends to or not, she is normalizing the appearance of a woman on stage for audiences, new and old. More importantly, she’s also doing her part to make the DSO sound truly great. During her Sunday performance with the orchestra, as Canellakis dropped her arms following the first movement of the Mozart concerto, the hall fell silent except for a spontaneous exclamation from a little girl who piped up with unbridled enthusiasm. “Wow! That was awesome!” she said. It was Karina Canellakis’ first big outing at the Meyerson during a classical subscription concert. The very first critique from this rather young critic was exactly right.