American conductor and violinist Karina Canellakis, a Curtis Institute and Juilliard alumnus, has appeared with orchestras all over the world and has been the recipient of many accolades, including the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award in 2016 and, most recently, the Emerging Talent Award from the Critics' Circle. Considered one of the best young conductors in the world today, she has recently been appointed Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

I caught up with her while she is in Europe for a series of concerts to find out how it all started.

Karina Canellakis
© Mathias Bothor

“Music was always the main focus of my family,” she tells me. “My father is a conductor, my mother is a pianist and my little brother plays the cello. Our very small apartment in New York was full of the sound of everybody practising. My father was always studying scores on our dining room table, so it was a part of everyday life: we ate dinner and we played music!”

Although she was taught the basics of conducting from a young age, the interest for it was sparked again later in life, once her violin career was already established. “I probably always wanted to be a conductor and I just didn’t know it. I loved playing violin, and I still do, but it wasn’t until I played with the Berlin Philharmonic, in their orchestra academy, that the seed was planted. One thing which inspired me about all the great conductors that I played under in Berlin was the idea that a human being can internalise a piece of music to such a degree that it seems as if the sound of the orchestra is actually flowing right out of that person’s body, coming out of their pores. I found this to be awe-inspiring. All the studying I did was, and still is, just an attempt to understand this mysterious art form.”

Among her inspirations was British conductor Sir Simon Rattle. “He was very encouraging,” she remembers “and told me: "You may not see many people that look like you up there, but I really think you could do this. If you want to, you should go for it." That was the thing that changed my pattern of thinking and gave me a little bit of a push towards having the courage to step slightly away from the violin and try making music without the instrument in my hand, which in the beginning was quite terrifying.”

Canellakis' experience as a violinist, however, always informs her work as orchestral lead. “I can’t imagine being a conductor without having had all the years of string quartet playing that I had, because that repertoire is the most closely related to the symphonic one, so it was crucial for me to understand how composers structure their work, the tonal and harmonic language, how to think about phrasing and how to make musical decisions,” she explains. “I also understand the realities of playing in an orchestra. I have sat all over the section and I know what it feels like to be the very last person in the back desk of the second violins, wearing earplugs because you are in front of the tam-tam, and I also know what it feels like to sit in the concertmaster chair, and everything in between.”

One of the defining moments of Canellakis' career was in 2014 when, as Assistant Director to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, she was called on to replace injured conductor Jaap van Zweden at the last minute, leading Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony without previous rehearsals. “My memory of it's very blurry!” she laughs. “I found out that I was going to have to do this, I went home and… if the score were an ocean, I jumped into it and I was just swimming for the next however many hours until the minute I walked out on stage. I knew that I could trust the orchestra, they are great, so all I had to do was to be clear and bring as much emotional understanding to the performance as it's possible on such a short preparation. And that’s what I did. But that piece is such a journey, such a draining emotional look into real wartime suffering, so it's a piece that doesn't play itself: there are a lot of tempo changes, a lot of corners that need a conductor to be navigated, and the fact that I was able to do that was a big moment for me, personally. It gave me a lot of confidence. Afterwards I was sort-of in disbelief… that part I will never forget because I felt like I was John Lennon or something. The reaction of the audience… they went crazy.”

Ever since that day, Canellakis has been performing with dozens of orchestras from all over the world, from Stockholm to Perth, from Paris to Vancouver. Her Nobel Prize concert in Stockholm will be available to watch on-demand on Bachtrack's video page later this year.
“It was a huge honour for me to be asked to conduct the Nobel Prize concert. I love the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and every time we work together it deepens our relationship. In the audience were some of the most brilliant scientists who are alive today, people who are curing cancer and making groundbreaking discoveries, so that was a special experience to share with them.”

Canellakis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in 2017
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Canellakis was also invited to conduct at the BBC Proms for the past two seasons. “The Proms are unique. They have a fantastic atmosphere and the best audience anywhere, amazingly dedicated, devoted, enthusiastic!” she says. “It makes you feel that classical music is thriving. Both of my Proms have been with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom I have a really great relationship. The first one… boy, that was an experience unlike anything else! I had played a Prom as a violinist in 2008 in the Chicago Symphony – I am somewhere there in the back of the second violins on the video of Bernard Haitink conducting Mahler’s Sixth. I remembered that cavernous, huge space in the Royal Albert Hall so to stand on that podium was a really special moment. The second Prom was definitely more fun: the first time I was sort-of terrified,” she laughs, “but by the second one I was much more comfortable and I could let go and enjoy.”

She will perform again with the BBC Symphony Orchestra this week, and on that occasion she will be also presented with the Emerging Talent Award by the Critics' Circle. “It was a total surprise and I am so honoured. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to receive this award with the BBC Symphony there. The first half [of the concert] is a 45-minute piece by Austrian composer and friend of mine Thomas Larcher. He is an unbelievable composer, creative, clever and brilliant. The piece is fiendishly difficult,” she explains “so it’s quite an undertaking. It’s a journey. It's set on poems by Ingeborg Bachmann and it’s a beautiful, haunting, exciting and suspenseful piece. The second half is Beethoven’s Seventh. It's going to be great.”

Karina Canellakis conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ronald Knapp | Concertgebouw
Canellakis has also been recently appointed Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. “Last spring the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and I fell madly in love within the span of three days,” she laughs. “For me it was the perfect combination of extreme concentration and eagerness in the rehearsals with a wonderful, personable, relaxed social atmosphere in the breaks. They play so impeccably well, it’s one of the best orchestras I have ever conducted. They also play an enormous amount of contemporary music so that was something else that we bonded on. We just did two concerts together that were incredibly exciting and full of variety in sound, feeling, emotion and virtuosity... I am so lucky and so happy, and counting down the days until 12 October 2019 which is our first official concert together in the Concertgebouw. It’s going to be Shostakovich’s Tenth and a world premiere of a violin concerto by Sebastian Currier played by Baiba Skride.”

Having a good relationship with the musicians sitting in front of her is one of the most important things for Canellakis. “I like to know the musicians by name and I think deep in my heart I still think of myself as one of the players,” she says. “There is this sense that we’re doing this together and I like to feel that we are all enjoying the experience. Of course a large group of musicians in a room, who are clever, accomplished and hard-working, will never all agree on the same way of doing something, so it’s also important that I stay true to my musical convictions. At the end of the day, you are there for the sake of the composer and the performance, and what we are able to translate to the audience is incredibly important.”

A packed schedule of concerts this year is sure to keep her busy, and she is ready for all of it. “I am looking forward to everything that’s on my schedule in the next few months, including a full production of Don Giovanni and Bartók's Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – which is one of my most favourite pieces ever written. Coming up in the autumn, I will do the first act of Die Walküre in Stockholm, with three of the greatest Wagner singers alive, so that’s quite a treat. I am soaking up so much music right now,” she says. “I have my head buried in the score, I am constantly studying, but it’s great, it’s exciting. I am still young enough that I can learn very fast, so as long as my brain is working quickly I will try to take advantage of it as much as I can. I have conductor mentors who are older who told me that it doesn't last forever so I am sort-of pushing now, because I love this music so much and I want to do as much as I can in my lifetime.”

Karina Canellakis
© Mathias Bothor

And among all these plans, there is one thing that is very close to her heart: music education. “I am happy to be able to continue to meet new orchestras around the globe and I always find it so amazing how many great ones there are out there now. Some people say classical music is dying, but I actually feel the opposite: I think it’s doing just fine, and the more we can focus on the music education of young people, the better it will be. I strongly believe that making music is one of the most valuable forms of childhood education that exists. It can teach a child so many things about being a good person, being able to live in society, following authority, working hard, showing up on time, collaborating with other people... you name it. It's a pure “being a human” experience, so in my lifetime I would like to see music education take off in a way that it hasn’t ever before.”

Click here to see all of Karina Canellakis' upcoming performances.