Esther Yoo, violin, VSO/ Karina Canellakis: Music of Dvorak, Sibelius and Brahms, Chan Centre, April 14, 2018.

Photo Courtesy of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Photo Courtesy of Vancouver Symphony Orchestra


The Vancouver Symphony has displayed such a variety of young conductors over the last two years that it is always redeeming to find one that has a particular sensitivity to musical beauty, and can put this appreciation into practice. Such is the case with conductor/ violinist Karina Canellakis, a graduate of both the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School, and winner of the 2016 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Competition. She has a particularly fine idea of musical line and balance, a love of lyrical expanse, as well as the ability to secure sufficient orchestral refinement to allow the music’s subtle shapes and moods to be revealed. For this concert, she was paired with one of the ‘rising star’ violinists of today, Esther Yoo, originally the youngest prize winner ever in both the Sibelius and Queen Elizabeth Competitions. Now, at age 23, she has already released two recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, and serves as the first-ever ‘Artist in Residence’ with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Everything at this concert turned out with illumination: Canellakis directed Dvorak and Brahms with a special eye for colour and lyrical shape and secured an elegant and committed orchestral response; Yoo showed a keen grasp of the Sibelius concerto in a reading that sought a more mellifluous beauty. 

It is unusual to start a concert with one of Dvorak’s grisly late tone poems, but it was absolutely delightful to hear The Noon Witch for its haunting colour and drama. The actual Erben tale on which the piece is based would not seem to have much of market these days: a misbehaving child pursued by a witch, where the mother’s attempt to protect the child ends up killing it, leaving the father in loss. Nonetheless, the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Sir Charles Mackerras, along with Sir Simon Rattle, have all championed the tone poems in recent decades, and my guess is that Canellakis’ interest stems from the latter, as she mentored under Rattle in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Orchester-Akademy for two years. It may have been this European experience which also explains her set-up of the orchestra, with divided violins, and cellos and basses both on the left, not the right.

At the start of this piece, the first thing I noted is how well the orchestral sound balanced in a venue that does not automatically balance itself, and has a tendency to recession and opaqueness.  Part of the success in fact may have come from the maestro’s decision to have the lower strings on the left, seemingly damping the bass projection in the hall; another might be her attention to volume levels within the orchestra. Nonetheless, the suspended pianissimo at the opening of the tone poem was one of the best I have heard here, and it was followed by even a better one towards the end of the work: one needs this type of suspension at pianissimo to bring out the sense of anticipation in this haunting tale. Canellakis’ discipline in the wind dynamics helped too, often fostering a quieter fabric but allowing the bass clarinet and bassoon to cut the texture with real pungency.  Though not as raw or dramatic as the classic Czech performances (e.g., Vaclav Talich), Canellakis probed the moods of the piece excitingly, gave it a fine narrative line, and brought home the right frisson in the difficult string passages. One always noted how finely-shaped and unanimous her string lines were.


It was interesting to see the sensitivities of Esther Yoo and Canellakis combine in the Sibelius concerto: very patient, balanced and finely etched, cultivating a rather warmer and smoother finish than one often sees. Esther Yoo’s rendering was beautifully clean, with distinguished tonal luster and sinew, and the conductor always gave her space to articulate the lines of her narrative. This was eminently rewarding, even if the violinist did not seek out sharper extremes. There were times in the opening allegro where she might have used more push, especially on ascending phrases which are often given greater elevation and bite. But this was not her way, as was confirmed in the Adagio as well, cultivating mainly riper romantic flavours, some almost Tchaikovskian in sentiment. The finale moved at a relatively moderate pace, with keen articulation, except for a few moments where Yoo seemed too jaunty. This was a softer and warmer approach to the work, and Canellakis’ orchestra served as a key anchor in executing it convincingly.

Many conductors tend to ‘charge’ the opening of Brahms Third Symphony in a quest for majesty and purpose but it is wonderful to see a maestro adopt the more measured tempo of Otto Klemperer and the (later) Sir John Barbirolli, simply suspending the horns as an introduction to an engulfing lyrical voyage. Canellakis did a remarkable job of finding the lyrical radiance and ebb-and-flow of the opening movement, putting it together with coherence, beautifully shaped string lines, and the needed dramatic force. This was all about beauty and poetry: even with the added repeat, she lost her grip very infrequently and everything seemed at the service of the music. An interesting folk character infused the start of the Andante, moving forward with quieter hues, but always summoning the lyrical reach of the strings. The sensuality and tenderness of the following movement were tantalizing, while the finale completed this warm and wondrous journey perfectly, supporting all the expressive features exposed earlier, and winding down with the type of radiant feeling and natural release we now understood so readily.

It is inspiring to see a young conductor exhibiting so much craft and thought – and so much love of the music. One also expects great things from Esther Yoo, already a favorite with London audiences.


© Geoffrey Newman 2018