Dallas — With less than 20 minutes notice, the Dallas Symphony’s assistant conductor, Karina Canellakis, stepped in to conduct a difficult program on Thursday: the hour-long and very complex “Leningrad” Symphony by Shostakovich. Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor (K. 491) is not as complicated, but Mozart presents different challenges as does working with a soloist.
This happened because DSO Music Director Jaap van Zweden had to leave for Amsterdam because of a family medical emergency. The really bizarre part is that this happened once before in 2014, when Cannellakis took over for van Zweden for the last two performances of another huge Shostakovich symphony, his eighth. What is the chance of that?
Bottom line? She did a terrific job.
The Mozart features French pianist David Fray, who gave a memorable recital in November of 2014 for the Cliburn at the Kimbell Art Museum. Although he is past prodigy age—he is 34—he still looks like he is in his teens. Part of that effect is his long chestnut hair, worn in modified pageboy without the bangs, his thin frame and his rosy cheeks. But there was nothing adolescent about his performance. He delivered a very mature and thoughtful trip through the Mozart concerto.
Although he occasionally rose up off of the bench to add some heft to the big moments, he played the modern concert grand with some effort to keep it within the parameters of the instrument’s much more modest ancestor. He played some Beethoven-ish cadenzas by legendary pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, which were obviously not written for Mozart’s piano, which had 24 less keys and is far more soft spoken, but neither did they stick out.
His technique is excellent and he is capable of playing very softly and still making the notes sound. He also has an impressive ability to create a singing legato line on what is really a percussion instrument. This is very difficult to accomplish and he does it with great skill and sensitivity
This overall excellent performance was slightly marred by Fray’s considerable overuse of the sustaining pedal. This blurred some of the virtuosic runs, which his technical prowess would allow to be clean and sparkling.
The Shostakovich symphony is a huge and complicated work that is related to the horrific siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Between 1928 and 1941, eight million people died under both Stalin and Hitler. It is a tossup as to who was the most evil. The composer reportedly said that he had nothing against calling it the Leningrad, but added that it’s not about Leningrad under siege. It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed—Hitler merely destroyed what remained.
When the composer was feverishly trying to finish the symphony, he refused an offer to be evacuated as Hitler’s sadistic armies approached. What happened then is unimaginable.
For 900 days, Hitler starved the city. Even though they were forced to eat their pets, and there were whispers about cannibalism, the citizens stood firm. Everyone in the city knew that the great Russian composer was staying with them and writing an expansive symphony to tell the tale—which acted as an inspiration to endure the unendurable.
For the premiere, the skeletal members of the disbanded orchestra limped to the rehearsals. That performance had to be one of the most inspirational concerts in music history. Reportedly, a few of the players died from starvation within a few days of the event.
The assistant conductor lot in life is to sit and wait. They are usually young without the repertoire that more experienced conductors have at their fingertips. Also, conductors pick the season with three kinds of pieces: those they know cold (and don’t require much study time,) those they want to learn and those they already know but want to brush up on. This list, naturally, almost never coincides with the assistant’s list so they have to absorb a huge amount of music.
So, the assistant sits through all of the rehearsals, making notes on how the conductor has conceived the major parameters, such as tempo and balance. That is not the same as pondering the architecture of the work and determining the tier of the dynamics. Putting their own stamp on it, as it were.
With this in mind, it would be patently ridiculous, as well as insulting, to parse over the little details of her performance. What she deserves is unqualified praise. But make no mistake; her performance, under very difficult circumstances, was not some stroke of luck. It was the earned reward for a lot of hard work.
As the saying goes, fate favors the prepared.