Symphony's Mussorgsky program a 'powerhouse' effort

Karina Canellakis
The San Diego Union-Tribune

After a somewhat low-key — pun intended — beginning on Friday night, the San Diego Symphony launched its monthlong “Upright & Grand” piano festival into powerhouse territory Saturday evening with a concert built around a single work: Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition.”

The first half of Saturday’s program was an in-depth exploration of the “Pictures” score, utilizing visual projections, the luxurious resources of the full San Diego Symphony, conductor Karina Canellakis, pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the symphony’s commentator-in-chief Nuvi Mehta (gamely battling a really bad cold, and ably seconded about halfway through by Mark Pinter) and actor Paul Maley, whose evocations of Mussorgsky, Ravel, quarreling friends and gossiping French peasants, among other characters, brought high voltage to what might have slipped into mere dramatics.

Following the intermission, Canellakis led the orchestra in a complete performance of Ravel’s orchestration of “Pictures from an Exhibition,” although “orchestration” is, it must be said, a pale word to describe a blazingly colorful piece that simultaneously honors the piano for which it was composed, and the endless resources of a full orchestra.

Canellakis is as slightly built, and probably as hard to break, as a rapier blade. That she knows every detail of the music she leads was evident. There is no excess in her work; everything superfluous has been eliminated, and her baton technique is an exemplar of economy and clarity. 

And there can be no question that she feels deeply about the music she is leading; her address to both music and orchestra is intense and expressive. At this point in her development, she is a bit tightly wound, and it will be interesting and rewarding to watch her, as years pass, find ways to let go and trust her orchestras with what is inside her head as well as at her fingertips.

For now, she asked the orchestra for everything they had, individually and collectively, and they gave it to her with shimmer and gleam to spare.

Read the rest of the review here