Saturday, April 20, 2024

Karina Canellakis at San Francisco Symphony

Davies Symphony Hall
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

Karina Canellakis is back at San Francisco Symphony this week, leading a program of Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel, to wit: Don Juan, Ravel's piano concerto for the left hand, Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung), and La Valse.

This isn't anything like a full review. I am unusually run down at the moment, owing to the approaching end of an enormous project at work, and I am extremely glad I wasn't reviewing this program. Okay, if I had been taking notes, I could write a full and fair review, but as it is, what I can most usefully present is a high-level overview of what I heard. 

I think that this was Canellakis's third appearance with SFS. Her first program included Shostakovich's enormous–and not very good– Leningrad Symphony. Her second included a moody Lili Boulanger bonbon, Strauss's Don Quixote, and the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra (a great piece). I reviewed that program; links and additional commentary in this blog post.

What I heard last night confirms what I'd heard previously, which I summarized as follows in the blog post:
With Canellakis, there was an absence of musical layering that blunted the potential effects of the works and made them too much of the same thing. I definitely did a mental compare-and-contrast with Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose conducting always has much more nuance than I heard last week. Well, except for that Strauss thing.
At the intermission, my partner commented to me that the piano concerto had "too many ingredients." And I replied "Blame the conductor, who failed to make the parts sound like a coherent whole." This is not an issue that I've heard from other conductors in Ravel, and I'll name Salonen, MTT, and Ludovic Morlot as exemplars.

But my thoughts about Canellakis and her particular sound world go beyond that: I don't see that she has a coherent conception of orchestral sound. I heard a lot of instruments playing last night, but in general they weren't blended or balanced in a way that created a coherent sound world for either Strauss or Ravel.

Now, part of last night's programming concept was to put together somewhat militaristic works to show a relationship between the composers, and that it did. Still, the two Strauss works are from 1889, early in his long, long career, and the two Ravel works are from decades later. One is German, the other is French; they were both masters but so very different.

I continue to think that in general Canellakis's conducting results in performances that are too loud.  But my current thinking goes beyond that. I think her ear for orchestration, balance, and sheer sound just isn't very good. We've been hearing Salonen regularly for a few years now, and I am always struck by what a great ear he has. Almost everything he has conducted–except for that Strauss thing–has been a marvel of subtlety and balance.

The same is true of many of our guest conductors. I have great memories of how beautiful the orchestra sounded a decade ago when Herbert Blomstedt conducted a concert of the Schubert "Great" C major symphony and the Nielsen clarinet concerto; the orchestra positively glowed in the Schubert. MTT has worked marvels of sound over a very, very long period. Nathalie Stutzmann's program a couple of years back drew a gorgeously rich, dark sound from the orchestra. Dalia Stasevska's two programs were brilliant in every way, including sonically. 

This is one area where I hear Canellakis as seriously lacking. I would be interested in hearing her in, say, early-to-mid-19th c. German standard repertory, Debussy, and Stravinsky, to get more of a sense of her range. I mean, I don't think that Stravinsky would sound much different in her hands from what I've noted above, but who knows?

Speaking of Debussy–this isn't a total digression–I liked Cédric Tiberghien a lot in the Ravel. I thought he got a very nice range of color out of the piano, as well as variety of mood. And his encore was an exquisite performance of Debussy's La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral).

  • Joshua Kosman, SF Chronicle. Let me second him on the excellence of Wyatt Underhill and especially flutist Blair Francis Paponiu, who sounded great throughout the program.
  • Michael Zwiebach, SFCV (link to follow)


Civic Center said...

Thanks for confirming my decision not to bother going. I'm not a big fan of Strauss's tone poems anyway and never have to hear Ravel's "Bolero" or "La Valse" again in this lifetime. To have a mediocre conductor besides sounds painful. Save your strength, Ms. Lisa.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I have checked and she isn't on the schedule for next year.

David Bratman said...

I liked Canellakis's Leningrad Symphony, possibly because she led it as if she believed it was a masterpiece, giving it the coherence and expressiveness it deserves. It gave the piece substance and beauty, and consequently was a performance to dissatisfy only those who dislike the Leningrad from the get-go.

But that's the only concert of hers I've heard.