A FRONTRUNNER Exclusive: Conductor Karina Canellakis

Karina Canellakis is the definition of a Frontrunner. At 38 years old, she’s achieved quite a few firsts in the classical music world – an operative term being “she.” Classical music, specifically conducting, has forever been the territory of fearsome, old, white men wielding an iron grip over their players. Not she.

Canellakis is the first woman who has ever conducted the First Night of the BBC Proms. She was named chief conductor of the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (The Netherlands), and the first female chief conductor of any Dutch orchestra. The first woman as Principal Guest Conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. The first woman to conduct the Nobel Prize Concert with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. In March of this year, she was appointed as Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The first woman to hold the post. Ever.

She began her career as a violinist and was encouraged (by Sir Simon Rattle) to conduct during her time with Berlin Philharmonic’s Orchester-Akademie. Canellakis spearheads a new generation of conductors bringing a fresh kind of creativity, diversity, and emotional intelligence to one of the most important roles in the classical music world – a role historically, almost exclusively, filled by old men since its inception about two centuries ago. When Canellakis talks about music, her voice lights up. You can feel that she loves every detail and technicality that makes up a piece of music (did Beethoven write sforzando or forte on his original document and why?) She loves, above all, the human connection that infuses these pieces with magic in real-time.

FRONTRUNNER’s conversation with Canellakis took place shortly before her debut with the London Symphony Orchestra in March 2020. While providing a beautiful overview of that program, she also told us more about her transition from chair to podium, and reflected on the pros and cons of covering new composers versus old classics.

Photo credit: Mathias Bothor

For those who may not have ever attended an orchestra performance, how would you describe the role of the conductor?

It’s hard to explain something so generally, actually! The conductor of an orchestra is the one person in the room who’s not making any sound, so it’s maybe a bit ironic and hard to understand that [they’re] pretty much the most influential person on stage. It’s a job that requires you to be able to inspire everyone. You have to be able to convey, using only gestures and facial expressions, both the technical directions for the musicians to be able to play together, and know how to play what they’re playing – whether they should play soft or loud or with what caricature they should play. Is it sad? Is it angry? Is it exciting? Is it tender? All of that has to be conveyed in one second, on your face and with your hands.

You also serve to set the mood in the room. In rehearsals, you are responsible for leading everyone through the music and for having an interpretation of the piece that everybody can be convinced by. So, it’s a pretty important job.

It sounds, the way that you put it, like you’re an emotional leader.

You’re very much an emotional leader. That’s for sure. I would say that it’s actually one of the most lonely professions there is, because any kind of leadership position automatically separates you from the group. An orchestra is like a family in a lot of ways, and you’re never really truly a part of that family. There are moments when you feel you are, but the difference is that the conductor will then travel to another orchestra the next week. Even if a conductor and an orchestra have a regular relationship where they see each other 12 weeks a year, those orchestra members play together every single week, and you’re there with them twelve weeks out of 52. So it’s a job that requires you to be on a little bit of a separate plane from the players in the orchestra.

When you meet an orchestra and you only have a few days to rehearse, what’s most important to you in that week? How do you set the tone at the beginning?

I never plan anything as far as my rehearsals are concerned. I just try to be myself. The first thing that I do in the rehearsal is I listen to them. I listen to what they have and what their strengths are, and I very quickly, using my ears, assess where I can be of service and what I can work on with them. That differs from orchestra to orchestra. There are also certain moments in the symphonic repertoire that are always difficult for every single orchestra. When you’ve conducted a certain symphony by Beethoven twenty times, you get to know those certain moments in the music that are particularly technically difficult, or interpretively difficult, for everybody to find common ground. So you know beforehand that those spots in the music are going to require a little bit of extra time in the rehearsal, and you can anticipate those sorts of things. But the rest of it is left up to the moment: listen and fix what needs to be fixed, don’t talk too much, and be nice.

We live in a day and age where being just a normal nice person and [having] humility is a virtue. [That] wasn’t the case 50 years ago in the world of conducting. It was much more…tyrannical, dictator-like figures who needed to be worshipped by everybody and feared by everybody. Nowadays, I think, especially with my generation of conductors, you have to be the fearless leader, but you also have to just be a cool person, be normal. Nobody wants a weirdo or someone who’s arrogant. No one has the time for that anymore. It’s a collaborative period of time that we’re living in, in the music world, I think.

You see that generational understanding in North America as well as Europe?

 Definitely, across the board, yeah. I’m not saying that you should be friends with everybody, or that you should try to be liked. That’s sort of death for the conductor. You have to not care about being liked. But it’s just – be natural, be genuine. Your job is to bring everybody to their absolute highest level of music making, and to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what everyone’s starving for: somebody that comes in and has a viewpoint, a clear concise way of getting what they want. Somebody that inspires them and reminds them about why they wanted to be a musician.

That’s a beautiful thought.


Your transition from playing violin to conducting: which skills are transferable, and what feels completely different about this kind of work?

My years doing all the things that I did as a violinist, like especially playing string quartets and playing chamber music, and also of course playing in orchestra.

They gave me the necessary background and experience to feel like I really know what I’m doing on the podium as a conductor, because I know the realities of playing in the orchestra. So I’d say there are a lot of similarities in terms of the environment in the room. When you’re in the room as a violinist or as a conductor, it’s the same room, it’s the same vibe. When there’s an orchestra on stage and there are 80 people who have all worked really hard to get where they are and who have opinions and have frustrations and desires, it’s a tricky thing. It’s a beast; it’s a living, breathing organism made up of many different individuals. So the fact that I had so much experience with that as a violinist definitely helps me a lot as a conductor. And the music is, of course, the same.

Canellakis conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Photo credit: Cheung Wai Lok

But I would say that every single other thing about it is completely different. [Laughs] That was quite challenging, to make that switch. Your whole identity has to completely change. I used to be one of the group, and I used to defer to my colleagues. When you’re a violinist, you [have to] defer to your colleagues and ask them what they think about a certain phrase, you talk about it, and you try different things. Especially in chamber music, you would never walk into the room and be the only one blabbing about what you think through the whole rehearsal. But when you’re the conductor, no one else speaks, it’s only you. Anyway, nobody really wants to hear you explaining the music to them. That’s not what it’s about. It’s just about saying the absolute minimal amount you need to say in order to bring things alive and make them [sound] clean and together. It’s sort of a funny thing, because you’re relying a hundred percent on the musicians in front of you to play the notes and to execute technically according to how the music goes, but at the same time you are controlling everything without playing an instrument yourself. It’s a very bizarre thing to get used to.

But there is a science to it, and it has a lot to do with human connection, and that is very similar to the experience I had playing chamber music, where you look in someone’s eyes and you breathe with them. There’s a lot of leading that you do in chamber music that’s very similar to conducting. But the thing that’s very different is the expectation, and the fact that you’re really alone up there. When you go to conduct an orchestra, it’s all on you. You decide the rehearsal order, you’ve chosen the program, you’ve often chosen the soloist. Everything that happens during the week is your responsibility: if something goes wrong in a rehearsal, if something goes well in a rehearsal. Everything is on you. [laughs] That’s just simply not the case when you play an instrument.

 You had joined the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic as Chief Conductor in 2019. After having so much time to prepare, how was the experience of your first concert with them when it finally came?

It was an amazing week. I was extremely nervous because, as you mentioned, there was a huge amount of waiting time between when we decided to go for it together and when we actually were able to see each other again and make music together, just because of scheduling. In this crazy profession, things are scheduled a year and a half to two years out, so it’s very hard to shift things around once they’ve been planned. But it was just like anything: the anticipation makes the event all the more anxiety-ridden, and hopeful at the same time. So when the first rehearsal finally arrived, I think everybody was a bit nervous.

It was just such a wonderful thing because we really worked a lot, musically, but we also had a great time, and there was a sense of gratitude on both sides. I think they were really grateful that finally this relationship was starting, and that I brought a totally new energy and new vibe to them as an orchestra. I was really grateful because this is my first appointment as a chief conductor and I absolutely love this orchestra. They are incredibly warm people and fantastic players, so as a conductor, you can’t really ask for more. In terms of making a conductor feel like part of the family – boy, they are really good at that! They do this thing where they [have] a cake made that has your name on it and says “Welcome,” and everyone eats the cake together. [Laughs] Not every orchestra would do that. The concert was fantastic, and they played their hearts out. It was just a great start.

Your programs often feature one newer piece alongside classic repertoire. What do you enjoy about tackling a new piece like a Missy Mazzoli, versus bringing your own interpretation to a Beethoven?

So, first of all, that whole model of – I would call it “sneaking” a 15-minute contemporary piece onto a program with a Beethoven symphony, is a method of programming that I think most people do because they have to because of ticket sales. Unfortunately, a lot of the time it’s very difficult to convince people to want to come to a concert when they don’t know the name of the composer. So, in my fantasy world, if everybody was gonna come to the concert no matter what is being played, then I would probably do more programs where two different contemporary composers are juxtaposed. I love working with living composers. I think it’s very fun and totally thrilling to play a piece that’s never been played before, or where a recording of it doesn’t exist if it’s a world premiere. To play a piece, if it was written in the last couple of years, that has a certain contemporary relevance – that’s just very exciting.

It’s also lovely to be able to call a composer. You can’t call Beethoven on the phone and say, “Did you want a forte, or a sforzando? Let’s make a decision, here.” With all the old dead composers, there’s so many confusing markings in their scores where you think, “What on earth?” There’s the so-called “critical edition,” where some very scholarly person went, looked at the manuscript and decided that, actually, that looks like an “f” and not an “sf” and so they print that. But we actually don’t often know, and I think certain composers edited more than others. I think a lot about all of that when I am interpreting their pieces. In the end, you just have to make a decision. So that can be challenging at times. But I mean, I’m a conductor and a violinist because of the Beethoven and Mozart and Strauss and Wagner and Bruckner. All that music is the reason that I keep doing this. As much as I enjoy the contemporary composers, the things that really, really feed my soul are the Beethoven symphonies and Wagner operas, basically.

Canellakis conducting the First Night of the BBC Proms, 2019
Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou

Is there an older piece that you can highlight as being particularly ambiguous or opaque, where you have to make a lot of interpretive decisions as a conductor?

Oh, well the further back you go, the worse it gets! [Laughs] Because the further back you go, let’s say pre-Mozart – so we’re talking about during Haydn’s lifetime and before – it was standard practice for the performers to improvise a little bit, to add embellishments, and to add their own notes – other notes to what was printed on the page. As music became a little more standardised, in the beginning of the 1800’s, where you had Beethoven completely destroying his manuscript paper from crossing things out and rewriting them – that was sort of a new phenomenon, because Beethoven absolutely knew exactly what he wanted, and he didn’t want somebody to be improvising on top of it.

Then you get into the middle of the 19th century, and you think about a place like Vienna. They suddenly had more standardised rules for orchestras and how many players there needed to be. That being said, I would say the main composer that is problematic is Schumann, even though Schumann lived in the middle of the 19th century. We know [that] he was manic depressive, we know that he composed during his manic periods, and then didn’t compose during his depressed periods. Because it was so irregular and erratic, he didn’t really edit everything properly. So his symphonies are a disaster, dynamically. I mean, they just don’t work at all. As a conductor, you have to go in, you have to change everything, thin it out, and fix the balance, because you often will have too many people playing one line of music, and not enough on another. So you can’t hear it. A large part of the conductor’s job is balance, so that if you’re sitting in the audience listening to 80 people play on the stage, you hear everything very clearly. That does not happen by itself. It’s in large part due to the way the conductor rehearses, and what the conductor chooses to bring out from the orchestra, and how loud or soft the conductor asks for certain things to be played. So, Schumann’s a good example of a composer where you just wish he had gone over things again and kind of cleaned them up. Then if you go back to Rameau or Vivaldi, for example, you have to basically write your own version of it.

If you’re going to perform that music, as a conductor, you have to put your own markings in there and assume that you have an idea of what they were going for. But of course, you can’t ask them if that’s what they really wanted.

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