A gorgeous Sunday afternoon – with hundreds of picnicking parties spread on the lawn and a decent number of listeners inside the Koussevitzky Music Shed – was the perfect setting for Karina Canellakis' remarkable debut at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Nevertheless, it was not Canellakis’ first conducting experience in the Berkshires. As Yo-Yo Ma, the concert’s soloist, graciously reminded everyone, Canellakis is an alumna of the Tanglewood Music Center’s training program, having spent here the summer of 2014 as a conducting fellow.

Karina Canellakis conducts the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

Canellakis started the performance with a BSO premiere: Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres). Initially composed for chamber orchestra in 2014 and revised in 2016, Mazzoli’s opus is one of the few recent symphonic works that has indeed found its way into many orchestras’ repertoires. With a title and subtitle evoking Baroque structures, the Pythagorean music of the spheres, and even a medieval Italian name for a hurdy-gurdy, the work employs a full modern orchestra, augmented with harmonicas and some pre-recorded electronic sounds. Described by the composer as "a collection of rococo loops that twist around each other within a larger orbit", the result is an atmospheric soundscape that begins and ends in misty silences and glides between concord and dissonance. The conductor carefully brought to life the textures of this brief composition that – with few pregnant rhythmic patterns but exuding remarkable timbral colours – defies easy stylistic pigeonholing.

The rest of the programme was an immersion in Tchaikovsky's music, featuring two works – the Variations on a Rococo Theme and the Symphony no. 4 in F minor – composed in the same period that are not often linked. In perfect agreement with Yo-Yo Ma, Canellakis pinpointed in the quasi cello concerto not only the composer’s admiration for classical forms but also the reminiscences of the just-completed music for The Swan Lake (the sweet sadness in the Andante sostenuto third variation) and the elegiac nature of the sixth, minor-key variation foreshadowing the musical universe of the Fourth Symphony and of Eugene Onegin. Yo-Yo Ma let the music flow unhurriedly especially in the varied extensions of the theme’s codetta that provide the bridge from one variation to the next. The beauty of his tone was as remarkable as always and his dialogue with different combinations of woodwinds sounded perfectly balanced.

Yo-Yo Ma, Karina Canellakis and the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

After rounds of thunderous applause, he picked a microphone and, besides praising Canellakis and solo horn player (Michael Winter), he used the occasion to “remember those that are lost and those that need help”, honouring them with a heartfelt rendition of the brief Ostinato from Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's Lamentations Suite. Plucking the strings of his cello with great delicacy (the sound seemed to be amplified in the Shed), he drew attention to a wonderful, jazz-tinged score that deserves to be played more often.

Leading an orchestra in great form, with exquisite playing from the woodwind principals (oboist John Ferrillo and bassoonist Richard Svoboda in the Andantino), immaculate brass intonation and the cellos playing with great warmth, Canellakis conducted an authoritative Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Musical arches were well calibrated. The first movement’s pervasive angst – “the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul,” as the composer referred to it – was clearly apparent, while the rhythmic patterns of the folk-inspired tunes were finely rendered. There was nothing melodramatic in her approach and one never felt the weight of any longueurs. The Finale, including the shocking reappearance of the “fate” motif, was electrifying.