Karina Canellakis has had since December of last year, when she was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, to get accustomed to North Texas. But she only found out this past Friday (according to Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News) that she’d be leading the orchestra on Saturday and Sunday, filling in for injured Artistic Director Jaap van Zweden. Ms Canellakis’ rock-solid and often highly expressive performance – which marked her Classical Series debut – under such extreme circumstances was a model of professionalism.

To my mind, the DSO is at its most effective in music of the Classical period and in that of 20th century masters like Shostakovich and Stravinsky, so I had looked forward to this concert, and to Mr van Zweden’s presence, immensely. I find that the orchestra usually doesn’t sound quite like themselves in the hands of a guest conductor, but on Saturday night they sounded only slightly less than spectacular. For a young conductor to fill an eminent maestro’s shoes on short notice in any repertoire is a daunting task, but to do it in such a difficult, monumental and infrequently performed piece as Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony – and without leading a single rehearsal that week! – is extraordinary. My shortcomings as to Ms Canellakis’ style must be understood in this context. By anyone’s standards, it was a fine evening of music.

The Mozart concerto was given a stately, unhurried reading. It felt somewhat detached, as if beholding beauty from a distance rather than creating it through human acts and emotions, but for most of the piece this achieved a marvelous balance. Only in the final movement’s jaunty coda did I sense Mr Ax trying to push the tempo just a hair. The occasional touch of genius seemed to be missing, although was impossible to know if things would have sounded much different under Mr van Zweden; after all, he had rehearsed the orchestra and conducted them in the first two concerts, so maybe Ms Canellakis had in fact realized his ideas fully. (Without launching into a debate on the role and significance of a conductor in performance, I still have to wonder whether the musicians would have simply forgotten to execute certain moments the same way because of Mr van Zweden’s absence.) Mr Ax gave a touching performance, his penchant for full pedal and occasional use of rubato tempered by a strong feel for structure and a pure melodic sound.

The Shostakovich presented a reviewer with several challenges, namely: with no time to work out her own conception of the piece in rehearsal, by what interpretive criteria could Ms Canellakis’ conducting be measured? Clearly an attempt to assimilate Mr van Zweden’s reading was her only viable option, and in a way Ms Canellakis was too accurate at this. She seemed not to be totally comfortable in her own skin, absorbing Mr van Zweden’s mannerisms without really making the piece her own. The tendency of her beat to look too similar across a wide range of dynamics, articulations and atmospheres, always precise but never transcendent, may have been a byproduct of the situation, or it may point to something that Ms Canellakis, like many young conductors, still needs to develop.

Ms Canellakis’ reception from audience and orchestra alike was resoundingly positive. Mr Ax beamed as he raised her hand alongside his for a bow at the end of the Mozart, and concertmaster Alexander Kerr presented her with flowers after the Shostakovich. Coming back out for a curtain call, Ms Canellakis twice gestured for the orchestra to stand for another bow; they remained seated, stamping their feet in approval, until she had taken hers first. With the stress of Saturday evening out of the way and this kind of support at Ms Canellakis’ back, Sunday afternoon’s concert should prove to be truly exceptional.