Canellakis steps in, makes exciting CSO debut

Karina Canellakis, Alisa Weilerstein
Cincinatti Enquirer

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Friday night in Music Hall had no small amount of drama. On a few days’ notice, American conductor Karina Canellakis stepped in to make a sensational debut in the all-Russian program that included Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

The evening resulted in two standing ovations and one of the most thrilling concerts of the season.

Alisa Weilerstein, a 2011 MacArthur “genius grant” Fellow, is well-known to Cincinnati audiences for her probing interpretations and impassioned style of playing. Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major – written for Rostropovich during the 1950s Soviet era – was ideally suited to her gifts.

Her bow seemed to throw off sparks from the first notes, a quirky and relentless motive that drives the whole work. That intensity continued as the cellist drove the movement to a searing climax, in tandem with a demanding horn solo in the orchestra (Elizabeth Freimuth).

In the slow movement, Weilerstein summoned a range of color on her 1723 Montagnana cello. Compared to the rawness of the opening, this was bleak and ethereal. As she leaned back to play, her phrases seemed deeply personal.

A massive cadenza for solo cello takes the place of the third movement in this work. Weilerstein’s playing was transporting, and every emotion of the music was laid bare. The treacherous finale riveted, as the cellist soared through one technical feat after another. Canellakis was an excellent partner, sympathetic to every turn of phrase. Listeners were instantly on their feet, cheering.

Canellakis, a New York native and protégé of Sir Simon Rattle, is a major conducting talent whose star is rapidly rising. She impressed local audiences last summer, when she made her debut with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. 

So clear and confident was her direction, it was mesmerizing to watch her lead Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, in the evening’s second half. 

Under Canellakis’ baton, the performance had an irresistible freshness of spirit. her view was romantic and lyrical in the first movement. The lightness of the string sound was striking, but she knew just how to balance that with an exciting drive to the finish. 

The impression that lingered, though, was how naturally the conductor allowed the music to unfold, no matter what the tempo. She took her time in the arching themes of the slow movement. The finale was both atmospheric and lyrical, yet momentum never sagged in the drive to its extraordinary finish.

The orchestra responded with virtuosity. 

Read the rest of the review here