Karina Canellakis makes ASO debut

Guest conductor Karina Canellakis leads violinist Itamar Zorman and the ASO in Berg’s violin concerto. PHOTO: Jeff Roffman

Guest conductor Karina Canellakis leads violinist Itamar Zorman and the ASO in Berg’s violin concerto. PHOTO: Jeff Roffman

At the end of last season, principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles brought Beethoven’s third “Leonore” Overture, an a la carte work that traces the story of “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s only opera, to the ASO a week before the concert performance of the opera. The work is a dynamic, tightly-packed musical journey that showcases a conductor’s grasp of Beethoven and the ability to wrangle an orchestra.

On Thursday at Symphony Hall, guest conductor Karina Canellakis paired the stirring, exquisite Beethoven overture, electric and dynamic in parts, with Alban Berg’s violin concerto. (Runnicles also led the most recent classical subscription performance of Berg’s concerto at Symphony Hall in 2010.) Hearing the overture against the stark, modern concerto, a tuneful but still disparate and spindly composition, was a bit jarring. Berg’s composition follows the twelve-tone technique created by Schoenberg, Berg’s guiding light, but the piece isn’t a slave to music-theory logistics.

Violinist Itamar Zorman began the concerto by slowly arpeggiating the tone row, a set of notes that forms the musical lexicon of the work, at a near whisper while clarinets tiptoed along softly behind. Soon he moved through wide, disjunct leaps of notes, overflowing with expression. At times, the work is unsettling both tonally and in the schizophrenic violin part – dashing through blistering runs of 32nd notes, then moving to sweet, careful long tones. In the second movement, Zorman’s violin developed a bite as he percussively attacked endless, dizzying strings of notes, the orchestra echoing his passionate playing. He is an exceptional violinist with broad depth to his sound. Zorman hurdled the tricky intervals and complex language of the concerto with ease and a scintillating musicality.

Earlier in the Beethoven, Canellakis bridged the wide range of musical changes in direction with sweeping, emotive leadership. But it is, of course, impossible to generalize her conducting movements; a vibrant conductor, it appears, at times, as if she’s singing phrases to the orchestra, her baton tracing a broad arc. In other moments, she conducts with sharp snaps of her wrist, meting out a strict beat. Canellakis doesn’t often move or sway with the music, but she is an energetic conductor nonetheless — her hands are expressive and always moving.

To close the concert, Canellakis turned to Dmitri Shostakovich stirring fifth symphony, a strident but invigorating work that has significant overtones of Russian propaganda. The orchestra performed the sprawling piece with beauty, giving a harsh point to the more boisterous sections and a sweeping sentimentality to the stirring largo movement.

A relatively young conductor, Canellakis is making a number of debuts with American orchestras this season, scheduling stops in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Minnesota in addition to her Atlanta debut during the year. This is her first season as chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, and she also just began her duties as principal guest conductor of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. She was serving as the assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra when, in 2016, she nabbed a prestigious conducting award that cemented her status as a rising orchestral leader.

This season, every new conductor that comes to Atlanta is faced with the same question: are you next? But Atlanta is not the only American orchestra currently undertaking a significant search for a new leader, though it may be the largest. The Modesto Symphony Orchestra and the Monterey Symphony Orchestra in California, the Bozeman Symphony in Montana and the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra in Virginia are among the myriad American ensembles currently conducting searches. Many of these organizations have already identified conducting finalists and are in the final stages of the process. The ASO seems to be just settling into theirs.


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. Saturday. $22-$98. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.

Bottom line: This seems too casual/throwaway