The remarkable North American conducting debut of Barbara Hannigan

Photo credit: Malcolm Cook

Photo credit: Malcolm Cook

Oct 8, 2015. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, ON — Canada’s own Barbara Hannigan is taking the classical music world by storm. She is the soprano who is first call, especially for 20th and 21st Century opera. 

I first saw Hannigan on a Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall performance of Walton’s Façade. She proclaimed the odd Sitwell poems beautifully, and when Sir Simon Rattle had a go at some of the poems, Hannigan calmly walked over and took the baton. She was superb and is that rarity — a double threat in classical music. 

She is as dynamic an actress and stage presence as she is singer. I have watched her on YouTube conducting the Gothenburg Symphony and others, and singing fabulous leads in Berg’s Lulu, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten and George Benjamin’s recent masterpiece, Written on Skin. Her party piece is Ligeti’s brilliant and funny Mysteries of the Macabre. Treat yourself and search YouTube for Hannigan/Rattle/LSO/Ligeti. 

Last night she was making her North American conducting debut while throwing in a few vocal treats for good measure, including Luigi Nono’s Djamila Boupacha and Mozart’s Bella mia fiamma…Resta, o cara. 

Nono’s song for solo voice, Djamila Boupacha (1962), about the Algerian freedom fighter’s torture by French paratroopers, opened the concert in dramatic fashion. Hannigan, in front of the small orchestra set up for Haydn’s Symphony No. 49, sang deeply from the heart and with the most sublime vocal control. The drama in the hall was palpable in the four minute piece, which Hannigan led attacca in to the opening movement of the Haydn symphony. Considering the huge harmonic and melodic differences, the transition was elegant and musically seamless. The aleatoric darling of the left Nono and establishment classical Haydn. Who would have thought? Hannigan. 

Conducting without a baton, Hannigan is definitely not a time beater. The exquisite phrasing she delivers travels directly from her heart to vocal cords and to her hands. As such, the Haydn was magnificent. Rarely have I seen such expressive hands on a conductor. Her technique is very good, but her arms seemed superfluous when the hands did all the driving. Let’s not forget the band. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra continues to improve. This orchestra can stand comparison with the best. No matter the repertoire, the orchestra adapts to each musical situation and captures the essence of a composer’s specific sounds, voicing and phrasing. 

Much like an early Rothko, Mondrian, or Pollack painting, early compositions by György Ligeti (1923 -2006) are far from the finished post modern product. Accessible melodies and harmonies made his Concert Românesc the most enjoyable virtuoso exercise for both conductor and orchestra. The power and technique Hannigan demanded from her musicians was very exciting. This 1951 ‘Romanian Concerto’ should be on more concert programs. The audience loved it. 

After the break, Hannigan dazzled us once again singing, acting and conducting Mozart’s concert aria, Bella mia fiamma…Resta, o cara, K. 528. To be fair, much of the legwork was directed beautifully by the concertmaster, Jonathan Crow. Hannigan’s coloratura was spectacular and heartbreaking. Like all great artists, Hannigan continues to improve. This Mozart had none of the brashness that I’ve heard from her on earlier occasions. Hannigan is such a modern music specialist and dynamo, that jumping back and forth, especially with the demands of Mozart, must be very difficult. Here, her phrasing and sublime tone equaled that of the Nono. 

Hannigan would be the first to tell you that she is not the finished product as a conductor. When rhythms became as complex as the tempos were fast (last movements of the Ligeti and the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements), ensemble was not always as clean as she or the orchestra would have liked. But these were very small inconsistencies that any musician would forgive, especially when the musical well is so deep. 

The concert ended with Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Hannigan dug deeply into his neoclassical style and the orchestra responded with the most elegiac playing. Once again, her remarkable talents for perfect phrasing cast the more rhythm than melody last movement (oh, but what rhythms) in a wonderful light. 

Barbara Hannigan is Canada’s musical gift to the world. She is our most complete musician and attending her North American conducting debut with Canada’s finest orchestra was an honour.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Barbara Hannigan, conductor and soprano

Nono: Djamila Boupacha
Haydn: Symphony No. 49 “La Passione”
Ligeti: Concert Românesc
Mozart: Bella mia fiamma…Resta, o cara, K. 528
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements