After Klaus Mäkelä’s impressive London Philharmonic debut earlier in the week, Karina Canellakis made her first appearance at the Royal Festival Hall as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor. There are similarities in style. Both eschew grandstanding, look-at-me gestures in favour of a clear, firm beat – Canellakis’ baton technique is exemplary – and the movements of both spring from their hips, leaning into phrases. Where Mäkelä’s attention to meticulous detail yielded rewards in an astonishing La Mer, Canellakis surveyed the wider canvas in a punchy account of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony that took in the sweep of its mighty architecture.

Karina Canellakis
© Benjamin Ealovega

Canellakis made her LPO debut in 2018, my chief memory being a firecracker of a Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. The programme here was divided between her native USA and Finnish forests – Hollywood to Helsinki, if you will. The Chairman Dances is an offcut from John Adams’ workbench whilst composing his opera Nixon in China that was just too good to lose, refashioned into a short concert work. The original surreal scenario was going to be a ballet sequence in which a young Mao Tse Tung dances a foxtrot with his (then) mistress, Chiang Ch’ing. It’s a showpiece for any percussion department and the LPO team gyrated and grooved its way through Adams’ irresistible rhythms, Canellakis guiding them seamlessly from the whirring motors of the opening into a sly, glitzy foxtrot to satisfy those audience members who forwent their Saturday night dose of Strictly.

Inon Barnatan
© Benjamin Ealovega

There’s a feel of the dance about George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F too. Indeed, Gene Kelly employed it in his Pas de Dieux, recently revived by Scottish Ballet. Its opening orchestral tutti sounds like something from an MGM musical, although it dissolves into a late night jazz bar atmosphere during some of its more introspective solos. Inon Barnatan offered a terrific performance, deft and cheeky, often jigging around on his piano stool and wearing a big grin. He had great communication with the LPO strings, in particular, swivelling around to enjoy their swooning contributions. Not to be outdone, James Fountain delivered a smoky, bluesy trumpet solo at the head of the second movement Adagio. There was steel in Barnatan’s rapid fingerwork in the Allegro agitato finale, followed by Broadway panache in his encore, Earl Wild’s étude on I Got Rhythm.

Karina Canellakis conducts the LPO
© Benjamin Ealovega

Half-time, change ends, bringing a shock of icy waters courtesy of the LPO flutes, led by Fiona Kelly, in Sibelius’ The Oceanides. The LPO has a tremendous pedigree in Sibelius – one especially cherishes superb performances under Osmo Vänskä and the late, great Paavo Berglund – and that fine tradition looks set to continue. Canellakis drew a wonderfully transparent sound from the orchestra here, bubbling woodwinds and surging strings building to a powerful climax. Its mood heralded a similarly powerful Fifth Symphony marred only by a blurry-eyed opening horn chord (perhaps they were put off by the sudden lighting shift to blue). Canellakis was always sensitive to the music’s inner pulse, thinking in terms of big paragraphs rather than short phrases or sentences, and the coda to the first movement was so strongly driven that it drew instant applause. 

The second movement opened lightly on its pizzicato feet, segueing into the surging finale – cue red sunset lighting glow – where Canellakis charted the terrain firmly, her left hand moving in wide arcs, horns and trombones surging purposefully until landing their punches in those arresting closing chords. More please.