Karina Cannelakis ‘I want to just play the game in whatever way one has to’

Door 24classics

For PAUZE, the podcast about the Radio Filharmonic Orchestra that we produce for NTR, NPOradio4, double bass player Wilmar the Visser and oboist Aisling Caisey meet their chief conductor Karina Canellakis in our 24classics office in centre Amsterdam. It is June 2020, the Corona crisis is on it’s peak. Wilmar asks Karina how she is doing in Amsterdam.

‘ I love Amsterdam, I’m finally getting a chance to actually get to know the city. I wouldn’t have ever been here for this long if it weren’t for the crisis. So for me, it definitely has a silver lining. This whole situation. I’ve been here the whole time. The program that was canceled was the Beethoven mass program of March 15th. And since then I’ve been here.

It’s crazy. How long ago was it for you that you didn’t have concerts for this long?
Not since I was a small child. Even when I was before the age of nine. And from the age of nine, I went to a Saturday music school and we had little concerts every Saturday. And in the summer, I always went to summercamp, a very nerdy life, but also very privileged. You were always playing for people and that’s like what we’ve all done since we were little kids. That’s the only way you can be a musician.

Have you thought about that idea that you haven’t had such a long time in your life that you didn’t have concerts?
Well, I have to say, I had a funny realization during this crisis because there was actually one brief period of time more recently where I did less performing and more studying. That was right in the kind of switch over right on the cusp when I was between still being a violinist and turning into a conductor. And there was one year where I was studying conducting at Juilliard. I had told myself I was not going to play any concerts on the violin that year because I really I needed to know if this is really what I want to do. And I needed to know if I really just put 100 percent focus into the scores, what would happen. And I’m really glad I did that because that was the turning point in my life. That year, I spent most of my time sitting at my kitchen table, which doubled as dining table, study, everything in my tiny apartment in New York. And I spentfive or six hours a day at the piano with scores. It was a total identity switch.

And this crisis, weirdly, has reminded me psychologically so much of that time.
It was very strange because I felt another kind of identity crisis. I don’t know if you felt that during this period, but without your concerts and without your normal life, it’s like ‘wait a second, who am I? What am I doing? What am I doing with my life?’

As you say, you had concerts already from the age of nine. So playing concerts is part of your identity as well, because you’ve been formed as a child all the way up to the age of God knows, whatever age you’re constantly being formed. So it’s actually part of your forming of your childhood. Concerts are part of us. It’s quite profound realization to reach.

Absolutely. I think for all of us, we don’t realize how much we become accustomed to feedback from people and praise from people. You do something, you play something and someone says ‘good job! Great! Sounded great!’ We’re used to that since we were little kids. And we and we need that and we wait for that. And it also is wrapped up in the motivation to do what we do. And then if you don’t have that, if you only have the music and the practicing, but you never, ever have for months and months, anyone saying to you: ‘ Good job’. Then what happens? Then you think to yourself. Why am I doing this? What is the real reason I’m doing this? Am I doing this to seek approval from other people? Am I doing this because my parents wanted me to do this and all my childhood they said, ‘good job’. Am I doing this because I want to do this myself?

Maybe a strange question, was there a result to all that thoughts?
I will be totally honest. This crisis has been very healthy for me musically because I was in a point for the last three to four years where my travel schedule was so over the top ridiculous that I was in a constant state of exhaustion and I didn’t even realize it. And I didn’t even realize how it was affecting my ability to process information.

And I was doing it because you always feel somehow obligated to say yes when you’re asked to do something. Especially it’s exciting when you’re a conductor and you are being invited to conduct all these amazing orchestras whose recordings you’ve listened to your whole life, and suddenly they’re inviting you to do a full program in this amazing concert halls around the world.
So you say ‘yes’ to everything. And then you pay the price for having this kind of relentless schedule. So suddenly I found myself like sitting on the couch with absolutely no reason to study. I didn’t have to because for months and months everything has been canceled through the summer. Everything. Many things have been canceled already in the autumn. This is unprecedented. It is extremely bizarre.

Lots of people in the music industry have their whole diaries swept empty. I know lots of singers who can’t sing next year and nobody knows until when it’s going to last. And that has got huge consequences also in the long term.
Absolutely. It’s devastating for the performing arts industry in ways that we we haven’t even seen the beginning of it. And I think we’re very lucky at the Radio Philharmonic. We’re very lucky in the Netherlands in general. But in my country, the United States, it’s an absolute nightmare, a catastrophe.

Because the older orchestras are funded privately?
Hundred percent. I mean, they have tax benefit laws from the government. Without that, the Metropolitan Opera would cease to exist. So there is that tax law, but they are funded and supported primarily by corporate and private donations.
So it’s a completely different system. In the U.K. also it’s a complete disaster. So I’m very aware of how lucky we are here that we were even able to play two concerts in june. We are still being paid. Yeah. I have so many friends in the other orchestras that don’t have any money coming in right now.

Did you talk to your agent already about that, that you came to this realization that you don’t want to have such a full agenda perhaps anymore, or did you reach this point already?
I had reached that already. I would like to do more opera also, for both the love of the repertoire, but also for the fact that you can be in one apartment with a kitchen in one city for about two months.
And that is it’s not as much of an adrenaline rush as the ‘jumping around thing’. But I think it’s much healthier musically also to sit with one piece for two months. As a conductor that’s an extremely important thing to do. You cannot just go from from Shostakovich ten to Beethoven seven to Dvorak eight.

This is sort of what I’ve been doing for about three years now. Because I was desperate to do all this repertoire and because, honestly, it’s very difficult for a conductor to plan a season if you’re with a lot of different orchestras. They all have their own repertoire puzzle. And if you want to make the week work, sometimes you just end up saying yes to whatever fits. So all of this makes a conductor’s life easily get out of hand in terms of the amount of music you need to learn and the amount of plane flights and jet lag.
So to go back to my realizations during the crisis, I think that I’ve been through last summer when I moved here to Amsterdam, I had some time to get the apartment set up. Too But I was busy. So I really haven’t had in years where I’m actually settled in an apartment and I don’t have any deadlines or anybody breathing down my neck or phone calls coming in or overwhelmed with emails. I haven’t. This is the first time. In as long as I can remember in my life that was the case. Isn’t that crazy? What are we doing to ourselves?

So how did your agent respond to that? Did they hear this more often from other soloists and conductors?
I doubt it. I don’t think a lot of artists open up on a deep personal level to their managers necessarily. Unless there’s a reason to do so. I do have a close, friendly relationship with him, but it also is a business relationship and we all know that. And sure, it’s in everyone’s best interest financially to put a lot of things into the diaries. But what’s important is also that an artist has an agent who is also looking out for your health and well-being in the long term.

I understood that as being the function of an agent or part of their function is to look after you, to make sure that you make the right decisions and you conduct the right orchestras or you work with the right soloists?
Absolutely. And I have the two best in the business. I mean, I’m really, really lucky with mine. And I also love to work. But in my own private time, I definitely questioned in a really healthy way, I think, why am I doing this? Why am I a musician? Why am I a conductor?

It’s interesting. So because you’re saying basically, am I what I do or do I do what I am?
Yes, exactly. That’s exactly it. And with the busyness thing. When you were saying you barely were able to finish a conversation until now because somebody would call or, you know, something would have to rush off to do something. Why have we made our society so relentless in terms of trying to shove as many things as possible into a day or into a workweek?

I really don’t understand how we got to this point. And I honestly wish that the whole world will just slow down a little bit and take time. It’s just gotten out of hand, this mass culture thing and the immediacy of the internet and the immediacy of being able to open your phone. You have 5G superfast internet and you just click and everything you could ever want to access is just literally in between your thumb and a tiny little device. What if we just made society in general a little bit nicer and more comfortable for everyone?

Wilmar: We’re starting again with the orchestra now and your energy behind the behind the scenes was amazing trying to get all this organized. But now we’re in a situation that we can work for a month together. It’s like it’s the old times, you know, as summer school, Camp National Youth Orchestra. That kind of feeling. You see each other every day. And I noticed also that everyday you went deeper and with more of yourself and.

Shouldn’t we every year spent time like that, like for a full month or longer and really don’t say what we’re going to play, but just decide in the moment. Because the programs that we play now you decided on last month. It’s fantastic. It’s like ‘what does this time need? What type of music? What type of repertoire? What is the platform that you want to broadcast it?’ 

I would really love for us to to get such a modus operandi. That we decide in the moment what is necessary. Do we decide it’s on a Beethoven seven, or should it be Mozart 41?

That would be great. And it would it would keep us a little bit more relevant in the moment. And I think the perception of classical music by many people is that it is somehow inaccessible, only for the rich, only for the privileged, that it is a bunch of dead composers, dead white male composers. Who cares? Why are we doing that? This is a very hot topic at the moment in the in the world. And the thing is that I feel a huge responsibility for this industry as the public figure that I have become in the eyes of many people. And the fact that my profile is quite different than most conductors traditionally in terms of my age, my sex and et cetera. So I feel that whatever attention I get because I’m a girl or because I’m young used to annoy me and now it doesn’t annoy me more. I just want to use it. I want to use it to preserve this amazing, amazing art form. And I want to use it to help with music education. And I want to just play the game in whatever way one has to.

And connect with the necessary people and think outside the box. And I think that’s also what you’re saying, is that thinking outside the box is so crucial for us right now. We’ve had a lot of conversations in the last couple of months about new format, you know, presenting classical music with a new format. And what happens if we don’t have our audience and what happens if, you know, we I mean, we’ve realized that a lot of our audience is elderly. And what if it’s not safe for them to come to the concert hall for another year? What are we going to do? And how do we create media? We are a radio orchestra. We are considered part of the media, part of the Netherlands for sure, which is a very unique thing about this orchestra. I have spent hours and hours thinking about this and also learning about this country and learning about the history in this country of funding for the arts and the cuts and what has happened. I am trying to slowly get involved in a way that’s healthy for me. Because I’m just a musician, not a politician – I don’t want to get involved in politics- but I do want to be able to represent us.

So my big realization from the crisis is what you said about are you what you do or is what you do? Basically, that’s who you are.

I realized that no matter how many times when I’m really tired or overworked or on the verge of a burnout or whatever, I have said to myself, maybe I’m just going to do something else. I think we’ve all said that to ourselves at some point, why aren’t there other things that I love? But I really realized that I just cannot do anything else. This is this is just who I am. I am the music; that it is me and I am it. And it’s always been that way since I was a little girl. And I cannot separate myself from it, not even for a day. So when you realize that, that is very empowering. Because you’re not relying on someone else’s approval, you’re not relying on seeking fame or seeking success, you just have to do this because you believe in it. And that is power. There’s a lot of power and energy that comes from that. So I feel full of many nights of good sleep and having thatr realization.

I feel like Superwoman right now. I feel like we’re going to figure out a way to show everyone to ensure that this artform not only survives, but that it thrives in a way that it hasn’t before.

Listen to the full podcast here:

Wilmar de Visser, principal double bass player (RFO)
Aisling Caisey, solo oboist (RFO)
recording & editing: txt producties: Bart Geeraedts
production: 24classics

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