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Originally published Friday, August 10, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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At Olympic Music Festival, a cellist with a 'thirst' for comedy

Cellist Nicholas Canellakis is serious about his music, and the world premiere he'll be playing at the Olympic Music Festival Aug. 25-26, 2012. But he's just as dedicated to his hobby — comedy.

Special to The Seattle Times

CONCERT PREVIEW

Olympic Music Festival

2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 2, 7360 Center Road, Quilcene, Jefferson County $18-$33 (360-732-4800 or www.olympicmusicfestival.org).
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Among the highlights of the Olympic Music Festival's Aug. 25-26 program will be the world premiere of pianist and composer Michael Brown's "Dialogue for Violin and Cello," the third piece he's written for his regular collaborator, cellist Nicholas Canellakis.

The following weekend (Sept. 1-2), Brown himself will appear at OMF on a piano- driven bill featuring works by Brahms, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Ravel.

Brown, with a master's degree from the Juilliard School, and Canellakis, a similarly accomplished alumnus of the Curtis Institute of Music, are both young, in-demand artists lavishly praised by The New York Times. Besides partnering occasionally on Brown's new music, they regularly play as a duo focused on innovative programming and original arrangements.

But forget all that. If you really want to see what these guys are about, you can watch them online, lamely competing to hit on superstar pianist Yuja Wang.

Canellakis, 28, noted by critics for the depth of emotion he brings to performances, is also the producer of the comedy web series "Conversations with Nick Canellakis." (Go to youtube.com and search for that title.)

A kind of highbrow version of Mike Myers' old "Wayne's World" sketches on "Saturday Night Live," "Conversations" presents Canellakis and Brown in tony settings, ostensibly chatting about music with the likes of Wang or the Emerson String Quartet. Invariably, these sessions degenerate into something more craven and base, such as jealousy over other musicians' success, career opportunism and siblinglike testiness between the two hosts and longtime friends.

It's funny stuff. Highlights include Canellakis pressing his résumé on the Emerson ensemble, and the incredulity with which every guest violist is asked about his choice of instrument. ("Was there childhood trauma involved?")

Smoothly directed by Canellakis, "Conversations" is part of his overall passion for comedy and film/video production. Among his other farcical achievements are the Poelike short "The Cello Case" and a three-part parody of "The Shining," starring Canellakis in the Jack Nicholson role and set in the spooky halls of Curtis.

" 'Conversations' came out of doing a YouTube talk with Michael about music," says Canellakis. "I went off on a tangent and started riffing, and the whole thing turned into a big joke. All our friends thought it was hilarious, and we were encouraged to do more. In some ways, I look to certain comedians and directors as much as I do musicians."

Canellakis cites Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis and Larry David as comic inspirations.

"The level of dedication and technical prowess required in classical music is serious," Canellakis says. "So there's a perception that musicians don't have another side to them. I wanted to quench my thirst for doing comedy and show that musicians don't always take themselves seriously."

There is seriousness enough in Canellakis' career. The youngest child from a family of musicians (his sister is violinist Karina Canellakis), he has enjoyed multiyear residencies with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society and Carnegie Hall's Academy, was principal cellist of the New York String Orchestra and teaches at the Manhattan School of Music's Pre-College Division.

The Olympic Music Festival program in which Canellakis will participate includes Brahms' String Sextet No. 2 in G major, which he calls "a pastoral piece with unusual textures; gorgeous." There's also Bloch's Piano Quintet No. 1: "It's exotic, epic. The chamber-music equivalent of the 'Lawrence of Arabia' score."

As for his sense about Brown's world premiere?

"My sense is I don't think it's finished. But I'm very optimistic."

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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