Karina Canellakis made a strong impression on 15th August in her debut with The Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center. Two relative rarities occupied the program's first half: Antonín Dvořák’s late symphonic poem The Wood Dove and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor, Op.35Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Symphony no. 4 in F minor, Op.36 filled the second half.

Karina Canellakis conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Dvořák composed a series of five symphonic poems after completing his nine symphonies. The Wood Dove (1896) was the fourth, based on a macabre folk ballad by Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben. The story involves a young widow who meets a handsome man who distracts her from what appears to be her grief. After they marry, the woman hears a wood dove singing in a tree above her late husband’s grave and drowns herself. The author then reveals that she had poisoned her first husband.

Dvořák’s music is dramatic, with thunderous climaxes, but often with slow colorful, creepy writing for strings; for example, descending “slithering” scales in the violins. After development to a climax, the music represents the wedding, with offstage trumpets playing a jolly folk tune and generally joyous music. The earlier somber tone returns as the young widow’s secret is revealed: we hear the trilling of the wood dove. Death comes to the young woman, with her redemption shown in a final major key passage. Canellakis paced the score skillfully, making the narrative clear by blending the various musical elements.

Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto is an odd but arresting work for solo piano (Behzod Abduraimov), solo trumpet (TCO principal trumpet Michael Sachs) and string orchestra. The concerto is mercurial, with the mood constantly shifting from melancholy to jollity to despair. The four short movements that comprised the 20-minute piece were played without pause.

Michael Sachs and Behzod Abduraimov
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Abduraimov performed the virtuoso solo part with seeming ease, a reminder of what a skilled performer Shostakovich must have been. He was capable of thundering cascades of sound, but he also supplied delicate pianissimos when called for. Although the solo trumpet has fewer notes, the part is equally challenging, ranging from the bottom to the top of the trumpet’s range with some of the most beautiful melody lines. The antics and fanfares of the fourth movement were brilliant. Canellakis was a sensitive partner, giving the solo performers space to linger over phrases while maintaining the overall musical flow.

Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony has all the composer’s trademarks: scintillating instrumentation, tender solo passages, fabulous climaxes and luscious melodies that return again and again. Canellakis mapped and skillfully implemented her strategy for each of the movements. Principal oboist Frank Rosenwein was subtly expressive in the opening solo of the second movement – indeed, all the wind soloists were worthy of the solo bows they received at the end of the concert. The pizzicato Scherzo was particularly fun and well executed, with its stereo left-to-right waves of sound. Although the solemn main theme from the first movement returns at the end of the fourth, the symphony ends in optimistic triumph.