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Karina Canellakis takes her place on the conductor's podium

Karina Canellakis rehearses with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.
Karina Canellakis rehearses with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.
Collin Friesen
Karina Canellakis rehearses with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.
Karina Canellakis, an assistant conductor with the Dallas Symphony, is making a name for herself on the podium where women are still a rarity.
Collin Friesen
Karina Canellakis rehearses with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.
Karina Canellakis says "it's very emotional" when one of her batons breaks because she remembers each concert she's conducted.
Collin Friesen

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One of the up-and-comers in the traditionally male-dominated symphony world is Karina Canellakis. An assistant conductor with the Dallas Symphony, she recently filled in at the last minute for that orchestra's music director, Jaap van Zweden, who was nursing an injury. In storybook fashion, she got rave reviews. 

"When people call me the most exciting young, American conductor, I don’t think that true," Canellakis says. "But it’s very flattering. I don’t pay too much attention to what people say or write about me. If you pay attention you’ll go nuts."

Canellakis is in Southern California to make her debut with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She says she always gets the jitters during first rehearsals with new musicians. "It’s like going on a first date with a room full of 60 people," she says. 

The first time Canellakis attended a classical music concert, she was about three years old — her father was conducting. But she says she wasn't a child prodigy.

"I developed a little later and I think I found my voice as a musician only sort of recently," she says. And maybe that’s what people are responding to. But I think I finally found who I genuinely am."

As far as being a woman in the industry, Canellakis says she hasn't encountered any difference: "To me, I'm just a conductor like anyone else. My generation — there are a lot of unbelievably talented conductors that happen to be women, so 20 years from now we'll see a pretty dramatic shift."

A self-described “workaholic” who spends hours studying and researching scores, Canellakis not only conducts, she also plays the violin — sometimes simultaneously.

"The [key] to playing the violin and conducting at the same time is — don’t do it too often," she jokes. "It’s hard. When I’m leading from the violin I use my entire body to show the pulse and direction of the phrase."

And there have been casualties with all the conducting she does. 

"I carry three [batons] at all times," Canellakis says. "If one of them breaks, it's very sad. It’s very emotional because I kind of remember any concert that I conducted with that baton. It’s cheesy, but people get attached to inanimate objects... and I keep the broken pieces."

Karina Canellakis plays with and conducts the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Jan. 24 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, and Jan. 25 at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

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