Karina Canellakis is a name to watch. The Juilliard-trained chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic made an impressive Philadelphia Orchestra debut this weekend with an offering of challenging music ranging from the late 18th century to the past decade. Canellakis was joined by Emanuel Ax in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major, gloriously sandwiched between two cheeky works for large modern orchestra, both thoughtfully constructed by the composers and interpreted with imagination and verve by the orchestra’s young leader.

Karina Canellakis © Mathias Bothor
Karina Canellakis
© Mathias Bothor

The program opened with Lineage (2013) by Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri. In a mere ten minutes, this piquant orchestral essay explores instrumental colors and an enticing array of percussive sounds from instruments such as the marimba, ocean drum, tubular bells and vibraphone. While those seeking hummable melodies will not find any of the conventional sort in this work, lovers of bold originality and rhythmic variety will not be disappointed. Di Castri opens with a cool, mysterious introduction which snaps ferociously into a roller-coaster train of ideas and effects. Using the baton masterfully to accentuate and bring out the pointillistic aspects of the score, Canellakis sharply defined and delineated the music’s path, through a tangle of flickering harps, deliberately whining strings, and gamelan-like echoes. Some tremendous use of various drums, crescendos that must surely reach the ffff mark, and an evocative entrance by the trombones diminishes to a conclusion that is less like a whisper, more like a kiss.

It is always a pleasure to see and hear Emanuel Ax, a familiar presence at the Kimmel Center. Canellakis abandoned the baton for a rendition of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto (actually composed before his First) that was warm, bright, and intelligent. The conductor exerted tremendous control over the musical forces at her command, but with good humor and an expressiveness that emanates from her entire body, especially in the fluidity of her hands.

Ax offered a steady, thoughtful pathway through the work, just about flawless in technique and the subtleties of volume and phrasing, delivering a sense of the emerging passion of the young composer. Such brilliant high notes (not terribly high, considering the smaller keyboards that existed in Beethoven’s youth), such warm, expansive music poured from the left hand. Ax aced the moment in the second movement in which the treble and bass lines converse like two people falling in love at first sight. What a pleasure to hear such luxurious piano-playing and so perfectly in sync with a great orchestra.

The program ended with Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, completed in 1954. Here, Canellakis took up the baton once more, shaping, coaxing, punctuating a lively performance of a tremendously complex and challenging score. The Polish composer’s work is often compared with its predecessor, Bela Bartók’s grand Concerto for Orchestra, especially in references to the two composers’ use of folk music. But the Lutosławski surely eclipses that great work in terms of an innovative, even shocking style, composed in an era of Communist oppression. Folk elements may lurk in the score, but there are no foot-tapping tunes of the “Frère Jacques” ilk. Instead, Lutosławski pushes hard against the boundaries of known western art music, breaks down those barriers, and leaps up to new challenges, many of his own making. It is an exhausting journey, but an exhilarating one.

A half hour in length, the concerto unfolds in three movements embracing a vast range of musical effects such as the timpani ostinato, recalling Brahms’ First Symphony, and the annoying celesta ostinato near the end of the first movement. There is a gorgeous English horn solo about halfway through the work, and an on-going interplay between the brash and the beautiful that retains our interest through every beat. What a challenging work for a conductor’s first-time appearance with a major symphony orchestra, and one that was well met by Canellakis.