After a Last-Minute Conducting Triumph, Her Own Orchestra

Posted May 9, 2018 1:51 a.m. EDT

Shortly after beginning her first season as assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra four years ago, Karina Canellakis got one of those big breaks. The orchestra’s music director, Jaap van Zweden, was injured, and she was asked to lead Shostakovich’s formidable Eighth Symphony without even one rehearsal.

“The first time I had ever conducted the piece was as the Saturday night subscription concert,” she recalled in an interview. But she triumphed: The Dallas Morning News wrote that she “rose spectacularly to the challenge” and called her debut one of the best performances of the year.

Since then her conducting career has exploded, and now she is again following in van Zweden’s footsteps: Canellakis, a 36-year-old native New Yorker, has been named the next chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra — a post that van Zweden held from 2006 to 2012.

“It’s incredible to think that I’m somehow following in that lineage, by chance,” she said. She said that she had sent a message with the news to van Zweden, who is leaving Dallas to become music director of the New York Philharmonic.

Canellakis, who studied violin at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and conducting at Juilliard, has appeared with more than two dozen orchestras in the past two seasons. This year she will make her debuts with the Orchestre de Paris and the Wiener Symphoniker.

The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic is known for the core repertory, operas and a steady diet of world premieres; Canellakis has experience leading new works through her association with the International Contemporary Ensemble and said she looks forward to championing living composers when she takes up the Netherlands job in 2019. The orchestra said she was the first woman to be named chief conductor of a Dutch symphony orchestra.

Looking back, she said, her last-minute Shostakovich was a turning point. “It bonded me to the orchestra right away, in a very deep way,” she said. “And it also showed me that I could really do this.”