For the second week in a row, a guest conductor has offered a program of rarities plus a short piece by Dvořák. In this case, the tone poem The Wood Dove was itself a rarity, first – and last – performed by the Boston Symphony under Wilhelm Gericke in 1905. Based on a folk ballad from a collection Dvořák mined throughout his career, the tone poem tells the macabre tale of a woman who poisons her husband, then happily remarries. Her happiness is short-lived, however, once a wood dove comes to perch on her first husband’s grave. Its mournful cry acts like Poe’s tell-tale heart, eventually driving her to remorse and suicide.

Karina Canellakis conducts the Boston Symphony
© Aram Boghosian

Tanglewood Music Center conducting alumna Karina Canellakis, making her Symphony Hall debut, created an aura of hushed intensity for the opening funeral episode whose mournful Andante march recurs to dramatic effect in the concluding episode. Subdued dynamics and muted colors gave way to the bright and rhythmically animated wedding celebration. Canellakis introduced an undercurrent of hysteria to those dances, anticipating the heroine’s final, haunted disintegration. 

Skillful balancing of sections, dynamic finesse and attention to a score’s color palette are the hallmarks of Canellakis’s kinetic leadership. Held close to her body, her gestures are crisp, concise and precise. The results are sharply defined. Nicola Benedetti matched her in all respects, collaborating on a bold, fiery performance of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 2.

Though the concerto flows without interruption, there are four distinct episodes bridged by a cadenza (composed by the violinist Pawel Kohański who commissioned it). The first two form an extended theme and variations; the second an energetic rondo. Benedetti varied the color and inflection of each variation in the first part, creating a choir of moods and voices, sometimes seconding sometimes contradicting the orchestra, then tore through the spiky cadenza with its vertiginous series of multiple stops as if it were a simple warm-up exercise.The second half was bright, nimble and celebratory. The clarity of the dialogue between soloist and orchestra undoubtedly benefitted from the fact that Canellakis and Benedetti have performed the concerto together several times before. What they achieved here could easily convince someone familiar with the piece that they were hearing it for the first time.

Nicola Benedetti, Karina Canellakis and the Boston Symphony
© Aram Boghosian

When he was merely twelve, Witold Lutosławski heard a performance of Szymanowski’s Third Symphony which left a lasting impression. Like his predecessor, he would take Polish folk traditions as his inspiration. That style culminated in his 1954 Concerto for Orchestra. Subsequent works would be much more experimental and atonal.

The concerto opens to a steady drumbeat as portentous as the one in Brahms’ First Symphony. As with the Szymanowski, the structure is conversational and built on dramatic contrasts, This time, though, the various sections are afforded the opportunity to shine as soloist in sharply delineated, often wild episodes, deftly piloted by Canellakis. The third and final movement with its succession of highly charged musical forms – passacaglia, toccata, chorale – shorn of their Baroque restraint was breathtaking in this respect, its virtuosity infused with a tension which became almost unbearable until it was finally released. Facing a score which requires a lion tamer to really succeed, Canellakis once again impressed with her poise and command.

Cameras and microphones were in the hall suggesting this program might be released in some form to the general public. If it is, be sure to seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.