Karina Canellakis at Curtis Institute stuns with precision in bold selection

Karina Canellakis conducting the Curtis Institute of Music orchestra in Verizon Hall, April 29, 2018.

There’s something immensely comforting in witnessing the act of a composer seven decades gone making an audience uncomfortable. We live today, after all, in self-selecting spheres of stimuli, and so to have sat in Verizon Hall on Sunday night while the audience coughed, squirmed, and offered its tepid response to Webern’s stunning Six Pieces for Orchestra felt like something of an event.

The Curtis Institute of Music orchestra concert came embedded with a sense of occasion in more than one regard. Longtime Curtis donors Joseph and Marie Field were honored earlier at the school’s gala. George Walker was in the hall to accept an ovation after the Curtis orchestra led by conducting fellow Carlos Ágreda unspooled Walker’s Lyric for Strings in rich waves of sound.

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Composer George Walker in Verizon Hall, where his “Lyric for Strings” was performed.

At 95, Walker, a Curtis graduate, is something of a classic, and so is his Lyric, which seems to gather an ever more reassuring glow with the passing of the years. Curtis will give Walker its president’s alumni award at commencement in a couple of weeks, and the ensemble arguably gave the work an even higher honor with a string sound as smoothly textured as frosted glass.

But the program itself warrants a moment of love and admiration. We’ve become accustomed to orchestras and other groups catering to us, following public taste rather than leading it — so much so that the Webern might have seemed like an affront to some. But it seems clear that Karina Canellakis, conductor for all but the Walker work on Sunday’s Curtis orchestra concert, had a specific point to make in programming the Six Pieces. Most listeners fixate on its lack of traditional harmony.

Canellakis and the orchestra, though, stunned with the precision of the piece’s incisive orchestrations — unusual and potent combinations that underscored individual and ensemble talent. And, despite the work’s being untethered to the kind of harmonic hierarchies we are used to hearing, great emotion followed. Never has single flute note so beautifully conveyed the crushing weight of solitude.

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Soprano Amanda Majeski performs with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra and conductor Karina Canellakis.

You didn’t need to know the words to understand what was going on in Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). For one thing, soprano Amanda Majeski, commanding with a pleasing sound, was able to shade meaning by changing her colors. But Canellakis — a Curtis graduate in violin now making her conducting rounds with major orchestras and opera companies — found meaningful orchestral contributions. In the fourth song, “Im Abendrot,” (“At Sunset”), she arrived at several varieties of sunlight, from the unbearably bright opening yellows vibrating with energy down to the last dying rays.

Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy may be overplayed (not to mention overwrought), but Canellakis salvaged it for the ears of the jaded. She took time to develop expressive details in its more introspective moments while never losing sight of the longer arc. The piece still came across as bloviating, but with the compensation of sweetness, light, and a quivering mystery along the way.