People 2015: Karina Canellakis Rides a Wave of Success at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra

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In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. 

What does it feel like when dreams start to become reality and the big career you’ve been working toward for years takes off and gains momentum? Karina Canellakis, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s talented young assistant conductor, says it’s an exciting, challenging thrill-ride. “I feel like I’m on a surfboard riding these giant waves and I’m sort of looking around like, ‘Why have I not fallen off yet?’ It’s exhilarating,” she says. “It’s also very difficult and stressful.”

Waving a baton and cueing musicians from the podium during a concert are the most visible aspects of a conductor’s job, but the bulk of the work occurs behind the scenes. It takes countless hours to comb over every bar of a musical score and carefully craft a detailed technical and artistic vision for a piece. In rehearsals, the conductor then guides the musicians to cohesively articulate that vision.

Canellakis had a successful career as a violinist before she decided to pursue conducting. It was a gut-level decision based on a desire to study the music she loves more deeply. “I had always been a score person,” she explains. “I was very studious and dorky. I decided that even if I didn’t become a conductor full-time, I at least wanted to be good at it.”

Canellakis went to Juilliard and earned a master’s degree in orchestral conducting. Halfway through that program, something clicked. “I realized this is it for me. I completely fell in love with the whole process of learning a piece and getting into the details of the score. I also fell in love with just being up there [on the podium] and communicating with the musicians.”

In the highly competitive, often cutthroat world of elite classical conducting, passion, talent and a degree from Juilliard do not guarantee success. This is especially true for women, who are still sorely under-represented in the field (only five of the world’s top 150 conductors are women).

Just out of school, Canellakis had her doubts. “I went through a period where I didn’t think it was going to happen for me. [I saw] colleagues having tremendous difficulty making careers as conductors. But then I got this job and now it is happening. Fast.”

At the DSO, Canellakis conducts the orchestra in a hefty number of “extra” events. In May, she played a vital role in the orchestra’s inaugural Soluna festival, conducting several big programs as well as a hugely successful collaborative show with indie-pop sensation St. Vincent.

“I conduct all the time,” she says, “but this is also a position where I’m mentoring with someone. When Jaap van Zweden is in town, I’m constantly by his side, learning what it means to be a music director and studying all of the repertoire he conducts.” When a shoulder injury sidelined van Zweden last October, Canellakis was there, ready to take over for her mentor. Her pinch-hitter performance received rave reviews.

Canellakis doesn’t know exactly what is next for her, but she knows it will require a lot of hard work. “The goal for any young conductor is to just go in and be unbelievably, impeccably, perfectly prepared,” she explains.

“For the moment, knock on wood, it’s pretty amazing. I sort of can’t believe what I’m doing. I have zero sense of entitlement about it, but I know that I’ve put in the work. That’s where my confidence comes from. The career aspect of it is finicky and uncertain, but I know that I know what I’m doing.” 

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