Review: Guest violinist Fain, conductor Canellakis illustrate great potential in Chautauqua debut

Guest Critic: Andrew Druckenbrod

Broadly speaking, all music is in perpetual motion. Even a rest is more like a leap from one note to the next rather than a stop, or it serves as potential energy preparing for dynamic sound to come. But there is that special marking in music scores that drives the point home: moto perpetuo.

Those who attended the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra concert Thursday night in the Amphitheater heard that phenomenon in the finale of Samuel Barber’s exquisite Violin Concerto performed by violinist Tim Fain in his CSO debut. It also described the soloist’s extraordinary encore and was definitely in spirit in works by Richard Wagner and Robert Schumann.

Continuous flow also describes the present career of the evening’s guest conductor, Karina Canellakis, also debuting. Don’t be fooled by her position as assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony. Her career is a vector pointing up, with appearances at major orchestras and music festivals coming up. Based on what I saw and heard Thursday, she will be a busy maestra for years to come, and she has a chance to be a good one.

Canellakis conducts in a deliberate style, with sharp, angular movements and precise use of the baton. With a veteran orchestra like the CSO, that allowed the score to progress in a standard manner. That’s not a knock; it’s a sign of a conductor letting the music guide her until she finds how she will. (I love that she did not employ her off hand unless needed for emphasis or for specific expression.) And that doesn’t mean the music didn’t impress.

With Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser, the result was a splendidly solemn first section, although the Pilgrim’s Chorus was a bit slow, and an appropriately flirty middle. These are the contrasting worlds of Venus and the Virgin Mary that pull at the titular knight in the opera. Canellakis directed the strings to alternate wonderfully between the texture and spirit of the two realms, although the brass overwhelmed in that most glorious of moments when the strings provide a continuous shower of accompaniment to their utterance of the “Pilgrims Chorus.” I must give a shout-out, as they say, to violinist David Gillis, longtime member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (which I covered for years), who offered a vibrant solo in the middle.

Violinist Fain and Canellakis have performed with each other before and had obvious rapport in the Barber. Fain brought out the bittersweet nostalgia that seems to me to be inherent in the piece: his light timbre and agile bowing perfect for the task. However, his fingerboard technique was uneven in that he slid to notes and added thick, Romantic-era vibrato inconsistently, often so in the same phrase. This is a solo line best kept unadorned and with a hint of fragility, something that Canellakis seemed well aware of in her patient direction of the tutti.

But my, how Fain captured the urgency of that unrelenting third movement, his bowing supreme, playing the notes to their duration no matter their speed and brevity. And lest you think he was tired at the end of the presto in moto perpetuo, he followed it with an encore of Kevin Puts’ “Arches,” which takes that to a new level. Fain was almost playing above the strings, focused on the structure even as his bow coursed over them, nearly leapfrogging his fingers at times.

The evening concluded with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish.” The orchestra captured the vibrancy of the ebullient work that stemmed from one of the few truly happy times of the troubled 19th-century composer’s life. Canellakis did not let the first movement slip, as it sometimes does in the hands of conductors, into a late Romantic style, but kept it constrained in rhythm and texture. However, she left much of the rest of the work without adequate contour. This surely will come as she matures and doesn’t brook at bending even a masterwork to her interpretation. I am betting she will get to that point, and the audience Thursday can say they saw her when.

Andrew Druckenbrod is a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Pittsburgh and the former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.