It’s not surprising that Karina Canellakis became a conductor. Growing up in New York, everyone in her family was a musician.
“My father is a conductor, and he was always studying scores at the dining room table,” she says. “I grew up in a very small New York City apartment, and I’d hear my mom teaching piano; I’d be practicing violin, and my brother would be practicing the cello. It made all the difference for me. I don’t know if I’d be a musician if not for our parents. They made it part of everyday life.”
Canellakis makes her San Francisco Symphony debut this week, conducting three performances of an all-Russian program that features Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Ukranian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk as soloist.
Although she started as a violinist, Canellakis, 38, says that conducting was “a natural transition.” In recent seasons, she’s made big impressions in concert halls from New York to Los Angeles to Berlin. She won the Sir George Solti Award in 2016, and appointments followed. Today, she’s chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, and principal guest conductor of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester of Berlin.
In a call from Berlin, where she was conducting Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Canellakis said she’s eager to get into rehearsals with the San Francisco Symphony.
“The Prokofiev piano concerto is one of the shortest concertos ever written,” she said. “It’s quite grandiose and Romantic, but also very atmospheric and very exciting. It’s a short and sweet, perfect piece.”
Shostakovich’s Seventh provides dramatic contrast. Composed during the grim winter of 1941-42 — a time of epic loss and terrifying repression — Canellakis calls it “an epic journey.”
“It’s hard to imagine for those of us who grew up in a peaceful time,” she says. “People were disappearing. Shostakovich was taken out to the countryside so he could finish the symphony, and the score was shipped across Europe to the U.S. where it was performed in New York on the radio. It became instantly famous. It’s not easy listening, but it’s incredibly thrilling. To me, it’s all about the resilience of the human spirit against all odds.”
With appearances around the world on her calendar, Canellakis says the rapport she establishes with each new orchestra is something that happens naturally.
“Making music together is very intimate. You have a lot of eye contact with people you’ve never spoken to — which, in a way, can be much more intimate than spoken language. That kind of special communication without words is why I love being a conductor. You share this thrilling ride together, and it bonds you pretty quickly.”
Female conductors are still woefully underrepresented in concert halls, but Canellakis is optimistic. “I think it’s indicative of our society in general,” she says. “Women are underrepresented in music, but also in law, film directing, and many other professions.” Still, she sounds hopeful. “The generation graduating from college today grew up with more of a sense that girls can do anything.”
IF YOU GO
San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Karina Canellakis
When: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
Where: 10 a.m. (open rehearsal) and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Tickets: $20 to $125
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org