Karina Canellakis Reflects on Her Musical Journey From Violinist to Conductor

Classic Arts Features   Karina Canellakis Reflects on Her Musical Journey From Violinist to Conductor
Canellakis makes her San Francisco Symphony debut October 24–26.
Karina Canellakis
Karina Canellakis Mathias Bothor

Karina Canellakis was enjoying a successful career as a young violinist, after graduating from conservatory. But she says there was never an “a-ha!” moment when she decided to put down her bow and pick up a baton.

“I’d say I was always dreaming of being a conductor, but I didn’t know I was dreaming it until later. In my 20s, playing the violin made for a great life for me, and I had no reason to leave it. While I was still very young I got to play in the Berlin Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony; I was a guest concertmaster here and there; I played in a lot of string quartets; I taught violin. I had all these amazing experiences. But the idea of conducting was slow cooking, simmering; and finally it got to the point where it started to gnaw at me: ‘Why don’t you just try this?’”

Encouraged by such mentors as Simon Rattle, Alan Gilbert (her conducting professor at Juilliard), and Fabio Luisi, Canellakis quickly established herself as a rising star, conducting in the US and Europe, and winning the Georg Solti Conducting Award in 2016. She’s just begun her tenure as Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, and is guesting on major podiums around the world.

“My mentors allowed me to realize that I wouldn’t be a worse violinist if I practiced a bit less while learning how to be a conductor. I still love playing; I take my violin with me everywhere on the road. I’ll always be a violinist, but conducting has freed me, and given me such an amazing connection to a whole new world of repertoire, including opera, which I love. Now I feel conducting is the most natural way of music making, even more than violin. As every conductor knows, you have to work hard every day for the rest of your life. There’s so much music; you want to do all of it, but there’s not enough time in anyone’s life for that.”

Canellakis’s appearance this month marks her San Francisco Symphony debut. What’s it like to lead an orchestra for the very first time?

“The preparation is more abstract of course, because I don’t have any idea of what the orchestra’s basic strengths and weaknesses are. But we’re talking about the San Francisco Symphony here, and I’m confident that the things I anticipate will be fantastic actually will be fantastic! The most important thing when you conduct an orchestra you don’t know is to do music you really do know.” She’s passionate about Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. “The circumstances under which he wrote the piece are almost impossible to believe and are definitely very present in my mind. And I think it’s good for the audience to know that this was a wartime work, written in the 1940s by someone who believed in the resilience of the human spirit, and that goodness in humanity would be victorious in the end. But that victory only came after horrendous suffering by the people of Leningrad—besieged by the German army—and by the composer himself.

“The journey of the piece, from a conductor’s perspective, is made up of really personal stories that cut at your heart, the same way a great novel with difficult subject matter cuts into and stays with you. Those stories are important to me when pacing the symphony, because the conductor’s job is also to be a really important force for the musicians, to inspire, and bring everyone through this journey.”

And Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto?

“I love this piece! I think it’s beautiful. The middle sections have this very ethereal and eerie atmosphere that Prokofiev was able to create. Shostakovich reaches in and grabs your heart, but listening to Prokofiev is like watching a ballet, or a very enchanting old movie. He really paints a picture. And Alexander Gavrylyuk is one of the best pianists alive. He plays with so much joy and love of music, and his virtuosity is flawless. I’ve been wanting to work with him for a very long time.”

And, for that matter, with the SFS.

“I’ve heard so much about the Symphony for so many years. I have a couple of old friends in the Orchestra, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them. Also, just to be in San Francisco; I can’t wait, it’s a great city. I’m sure I’ll absolutely love the orchestra.”

Steve Holt is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. This article first appeared in the program books of the San Francisco Symphony, and is used with permission.

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