Saturday, July 20, 2019

Canellakis is Coming!

Conductor Karina Canellakis (from her San Francisco Symphony event page)

(Boy, do I wish I had a Game of Thrones font!)

At a time when following the news feels like “one damned thing after another,” BBC News provided a major lift to my spirits with a decidedly upbeat article by BBC music reporter Mark Savage. On the surface this seemed like the usual annual account of the First Night of the BBC Proms, but the occasion was anything but usual. The conductor was New Yorker Karina Canellakis, a violin graduate from the Juilliard School who was encouraged by Simon Rattle to leave the Second Violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and take up conducting. She has now made history as the first woman to conduct First Night.

She prepared a program that might almost have served as a thank-you to Rattle for encouraging her career change. The second half was devoted entirely to Leoš Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass,” so named because it is a setting of the Mass text in the Glagolitic alphabet. During his tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Rattle made a particularly impressive recording of this piece; and it is actually the “lead” selection (the first eight tracks of the first CD) in the Warner Classics anthology, Simon Rattle: The CBSO years.

The challenge of performing this piece goes beyond the music. Glagolitic is the predecessor of the modern Cyrillic alphabet, but there is very little knowledge about its phonetics. As a result, as mezzo Jennifer Johnston put it, pronunciation was “our best guess, along with academics who’ve given us some guidance.”

However, honoring Rattle was only part of the package Canellakis delivered at Proms. She opening with the world premiere performance of “Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory” by fellow New Yorker Zosha Di Castri. This was composed on a commission by the BBC to mark (today’s) 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. This was followed by Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 109 symphonic poem, “The Golden Spinning Wheel,” given, according to Savage, “a lovingly-shaped rendition.”

Nevertheless, all of this is now in the past; but as William Shakespeare had Antonio say in The Tempest, “What's past is prologue.” Canellakis’ successful Proms debut should prepare those of us in the Bay Area for her debut on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony this coming October. She has prepared a program with a challenge entirely different from that of dealing with text written in Glagolitic.

The program will be shared by the two major Russian composers of the first half of the twentieth century, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. What is interesting is that Canellakis has chosen selections by each of these composers with extended passages that dwell on strict repetition to the point of aggravation, almost as if each of them were trying to get even with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” in his own way. The Prokofiev selection will be his first (Opus 10) piano concerto in D-flat major; and since it was completed in Russia in 1912, any connection to “Bolero” is entirely anachronistic. Nevertheless, the opening measures are so repetitive that it almost seems as if Prokofiev wanted to push (or cross) the limits of listener tolerance, while Ravel’s variation in instrumentation makes for a less provocative experience.

Prokofiev’s concerto lasts only about a quarter of an hour in its entirety. The remainder of the program will be devoted the Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (seventh) symphony. This symphony is known as the “Leningrad;” and it was completed shortly after the beginning of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. (The city was still under siege when the symphony was first performed in Samara.) The first movement is dominated by what has been called the “invasion” march; and the Wikipedia page for this symphony clearly nods to Ravel in describing this march as a “bolero-like ostinato.”

However, this is a case of devils in the details. The second half of the theme sounds like a clear quotation of “Da geh' ich zu Maxim” (you’ll find me at Maxim’s), sung by Count Danilo Danilovitsch in Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow; and no less than Shostakovich’s son has affirmed that the composer intended this as a shameless appropriation. Nevertheless, Russians hearing the symphony for the first time were, at least according to prevailing (i.e. “Party line”) reports, profoundly moved by the intensity that cut through the entire composition.

The American premiere was given by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini for a live radio broadcast. The recording of that concert is included in the complete collection of RCA recordings of Toscanini performances. Critical reception, however, was another matter. Writing for the New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson declared, “It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted.” There is also the story that Béla Bartók listened to the broadcast from a hospital bed and was so aggravated that he appropriated the “Maxim” theme for his own “Concerto for Orchestra.” (It provides the “interruption” for the movement entitled “Intermezzo Interotto.”) However, the pianist György Sándor, who worked closely with Bartók, claims that Bartók’s appropriation was from Léhar, rather than Shostakovich!

I have provided all of this background to make it clear that Canellakis will be biting off a good deal to chew when she comes to Davies. I, for one, am looking forward to the occasion. I am glad that she will be taking bold chances at a time when there are too many concert programs trying to “play it safe” in the hopes that more audiences will be inclined to attend.

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