An orchestral program of Mozart’s darkest piano concerto and Shostakovich’s most complex symphony would challenge a conductor under any circumstances. Thursday night at Meyerson Symphony Center, the Dallas Symphony’s assistant conductor Karina Canellakis stepped in for music director Jaap van Zweden (who was called away on a family emergency), with less than 24 hours' notice to take on this task, with impressive success.
That Canellakis was up to the assignment was evident from the first moment in her confident and precise delivery of the multi-layered lines in the somber orchestral introduction of Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in C minor, which nicely set up the stark entry of piano soloist David Fray. Van Zweden has trained the Dallas Symphony well in the difficult art of presenting Mozart’s orchestral music in a large concert hall, and Fray, who has a well-deserved reputation as an interpreter of 18th century music on the modern piano, collaborated beautifully to explore a wide range of colors in this moody, quasi-operatic work.
With a much larger orchestra on stage after intermission (including percussion stationed in the midst of the violin section), Canellakis took on Shostakovich’s mammoth, 80-minute Symphony No. 7, also known as the “Leningrad” Symphony. Music serves a propaganda function more often than we like to think, but this monster of a symphony was very frankly produced specifically for that purpose during one of the darkest moments in human history — the summer and fall of 1941 — as a testimony to the courage of the Russian people under attack and as artistic evidence to the western allies of their determination. It was a time that called for larger-than-life gestures, and Shostakovich lavished his Mahler-esque instincts into this musical representation of a nation struggling for its survival.
The Seventh may not be Shostakovich’s most profound or subtle work, but it is certainly one of his most intriguing creations. The first movement provides an unforgettable picture of Leningrad under siege, with the advancing German army represented, with masterful irony, by a whimsically banal tune borrowed from a Viennese operetta, gradually expanding toward a noisy, terror-filled climax. At the time, Shostakovich was furiously balancing his loyalty to the Russian people, the necessity of working for one of history’s most horrible dictators, and creating music that would be heard and judged around the world; if the Seventh Symphony is hardly a masterpiece in the traditional sense of that word, it is nonetheless an enduring and engaging musical documentation of a catastrophic time.
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While Canellakis had demonstrated admirable command of both emotional and technical detail in the Mozart, she admirably expanded those same qualities into Shostakovich’s epic score, knowing exactly when and how to produce the bombast of battle, and, even more impressively, how to communicate the sorrow and anguish presented in the later movements. This listener entered the concert hall confident that van Zweden would pull this off with style, and left even more impressed with the young conductor who achieved the same accomplishment on short notice.