An interview with Karina Canellakis

After making history last year as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the BBC Proms, and now enjoying her first season as Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Karina Canellakis makes her way to the Barbican on Sunday 8 March for a lush programme of Ravel and Strauss. Ahead of the concert, we caught up with the conductor to chat about her concert season so far, her experience as a violinist-turned-conductor, and to hear her thoughts on the concert programme put together. 

The 2019/20 season sounds like an exciting one for you. It’s your first as Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. How have you found it all so far?

This has been an exhilarating season. Just the first few months alone were packed with great orchestras and dream repertoire for me, including an act of a Wagner opera, and of course Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony in my opening concert with RFO in the Concertgebouw Hall, which was very memorable. I have loved developing deeper relationships with these wonderful orchestras in Amsterdam and Berlin.

Also this season you are making a number of debuts, including here at the Barbican with us! What are you looking forward to about your first time conducting the LSO?

I have heard the LSO many times in concert, mostly on tours when the Orchestra has been in New York, and was always very impressed. The technical ability and quick instincts of this Orchestra are second to none, and the Orchestra is full of super star solo players. It will be so much fun to finally make music together!

Last year, you made history as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the BBC Proms. What can you tell us about the experience?

I was just focused on the programme and the rehearsals, and honestly tried to block everything else out, because otherwise it’s too distracting! I think we did a successful reading of Zosha DiCastri’s new work, which was beautiful, and I loved doing Janáček's Glagolitic Mass in such an epic situation, in such an enormous hall.

Is there anything you think orchestras, or indeed audiences, could learn from the Proms?

The audience at the Proms is unique in their energy, devotion and love of the music, and they just create a buzz which makes it a more electric atmosphere for everyone involved. You feel a real support for classical orchestral music, which would be fantastic to somehow bottle and then sprinkle around other places, infecting more people with a love of this amazing art form.

'People are turning to things that can bring them a deeper sense of satisfaction and peace. Classical music has a unique power in this way.'

You are a well-known violinist in the classical music world. How did you get into conducting?

It's a long story. Sir Simon had something to do with it, as he encouraged me, but honestly I think I probably always wanted to be a conductor and just didn’t know it. It was a long gradual non-linear process for me, discovering my true musical self along the way.

Does your experience as a violinist inform your work as a conductor?

Absolutely, especially all the string quartet playing I did. The years spent playing in orchestras, namely Berlin and Chicago, taught me so much about what it actually feels like to sit in a section, and I also learned the core symphonic repertoire that way.

What is life like for the 21st century conductor? Could you describe a typical day for us?

I'm always studying, humming or singing. A couple of times a week I will spend the day travelling by plane or train. A typical day is spent constantly thinking about music, and often times questioning past decisions about pieces or replaying past performances over and over again in my mind. There are many long walks, coffee, naps on concert days, dinner after the concert (and hopefully with fun, nice people) because it takes at least two hours to calm down! I enjoy anything that feels even slightly familiar or routine because there isn’t much that does, other than studying scores. Of course making breakfast and coffee every morning is very important!

You conduct a significant amount on the operatic stage. What is it about opera that appeals to you?

I love the repertoire, particularly Wagner, Strauss, Britten, Puccini, and Verdi. And Mozart of course. I love working with singers and being needed and functional in that way. It’s a completely different animal from conducting a symphonic performance on stage.

'Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of my all-time favourite operas … It includes some of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching music.'

We see something of your work with opera in your programme for 8 March. Can you give us an insight into what audiences can expect from the music in this concert?

This programme is so well crafted, in that it connects the lush world of Strauss with the refined, charming world of Ravel. Die Frau Ohne Schatten is one of my all-time favourite operas, I fell in love with it after hearing some performances at the MET years ago. This fantasy was put together by Strauss himself and includes some of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching music from the opera. I’m also so thrilled to work with my friend, the brilliant Cédric Tiberghien, who has a particular affinity for Ravel’s Piano Concerto, and a special way of hearing tonalities and bringing colours out of the piano. Love, sacrifice, death, regret, elation, redemption and waltzing all play centre-stage in this programme. It’s epic and magnificent music!

You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that, whereas some people say classical music is dying, you actually feel the opposite. What do you think the future has in store for classical music and musicians? Or what would you hope for the future of classical music?

I think the young generation is becoming more passionate and excited about art that has substance. Mass culture is a problem in our society, but I am an optimist and believe that a lot of people are starting to get sick of social media and realise it has dangerous, negative effects, therefore turning to things that can bring them a deeper sense of satisfaction and peace. Classical music has a unique power in this way, we have only to make it accessible to people. Music education for schools and young people is the future, so every one of us performers should remember that and devote some of our time to growing this aspect of the education system in our different countries. We also need to keep a close eye on our politicians and always vote for the ones who believe in prioritising arts funding!

Finally, when you aren’t busy conducting, what do you get up to?

Hanging out with my husband, calling friends, long walks and hiking, getting into nature, cooking with a glass of wine in hand, reading, movies, yoga and the very important part: sleeping!

Karina Canellakis conducts the LSO in Ravel and Strauss on Sunday 8 March, with Cédric Tiberghien as soloist in Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major. Click here for more information or to book tickets.

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