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Tag Archives: Barbara Hannigan

New Creations Festival, Toronto, 2015

During the eight days from 28 February to 7 March, 2015, more contemporary music in the good to great category was heard in Roy Thompson Hall than in any previous season. The benefactor behind this musical munificence was the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations Festival (NCF), a yearly celebration of new music written for symphony orchestra.

The guest conductor and curator of this year’s festival was English composer and Cambridge University teacher, George Benjamin (b.1960). Benjamin selected the most substantive compositions and shared conducting duties with the Toronto Symphony’s resident conductor Peter Oundjian. Three of the festival’s five major compositions were chosen to accommodate the presence of soprano Barbara Hannigan. Ms. Hannigan has become an influential voice in new music. She has premiered more than 80 works, all written for her exceptional musicality, technique, her extremely high tessatura and her ability to memorize challenging scores. She has appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker on more occasions than any other soloist and had her first experience conducting when Sir Simon Rattle suggested she share the baton with him during performances of William Walton’s Facade in which Ms. Hannigan also sang.

Ms. Hannigan began her NCF labours of love with A Mind of Winter by George Benjamin. A Mind of Winter is no great test of Ms. Hannigan’s skills, but she sang from memory, as she did with all the works she performed. The work is a generally quiet, beautiful landscape allowing the soprano’s first note to appear through the orchestra’s haze like magic, beginning innaudibly and gradually swelling into an expressive blossom. She was in fine voice. It was also abundantly clear that Benjamin is a splendid composer and conductor.

The concert on 4 March opened with a premier of a Toronto Symphony Commission, Lieder und Arien by Chris Paul Harman (1970). I was not looking forward to this. Years ago, I can’t remember how many, I played a work by Chris during one of the early years of the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop, conducted by its founder Gary Kulesha. Chris’ antique cymbal part was a mess of notes. It looked to be a cadenza for an avant garde violin concerto. I explained to Chris the problems his writing posed for a percussionist, but wasn’t sure he was listening. The memory of that experience and subsequent hearings of Harman’s music, was greatly ameliorated by Lieder und Arien which contained some very fine moments of orchestration. Though Lieder und Arien is an arrangement of music by Bach, it sounded original at times and I was relieved to have my first experience with Harman’s music put behind me.

George Benjamin’s Duet for Piano and orchestra (2008) was next. It sounded to me very much as Benjamin described it, a challenging exercise for combining a piano with orchestra in some real duet form other than the typical concerto. This one left no impression on me.

However, the second half of the concert was given over to one work, Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you for Soprano and Orchestra (2012-13). Fortunately, Mr. Abrahamsen was not available for an interview. Considering the size of his  orchestra, Abrahamsen (b.1952) has created an intimate work, stunningly beautiful and complex. Written as a “dramatic monologue” with Barbara Hannigan “very much in mind”, let me tell you was commissioned and premiered by the Berliner Philharmoniker. The text for let me tell you is from Sir Paul Griffiths’ book of the same name and contains all the words spoken by Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But Abrahamsen’s Ophelia “uses those words in different ways and, certainly, to express herself differently”.

I heard Sir Simon Rattle conduct the premiere performance of this work via the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall which is beamed into my television set in real time from Germany. Then as now, Barbara sang from memory and unobtrusively floated above the accompanying cushion of sound. Mr. Griffiths’ wife and Ms Hannigan deserve our thanks for planting the seed that became let me tell you.  It is a moving work of art

The festival’s last concert was devoted entirely to George Benjamin’s opera, Written on Skin. I had heard its premier performance on YouTube, fully staged  and conducted by the composer with Ms. Hannigan singing the primary role of Agnes. But You Tube reproductions are excretions. The NCF concert brought the truth of this work home. The mistreatments of characters, physical and mental, and the brutal rape scene were left to one’s imagination. The singing was terrific, but baritone Christopher Purves must be singled out. He was first to sing the role of  Protector when Written on Skin was premiered at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. The libretto for Written on Skin was taken from a 13- century razo, literally reason or cause, prefacing a Troubadour’s poem.

Written on Skin never reverts to clichés, nor does it wander. Every twist and turn is new, maintaining one’s attention through the last note. It is, if you will, a perfectly compact work of genius. It reminded me of Dutilleux. Clusters of brilliant ever changing sounds, miniature compositions in their own right, weaving their way through the orchestra, each clear and precisely crafted. The orchestra players must have enjoyed themselves. The section players had material perfectly written for their instruments and they played them, especially the brass, winds and percussion, with sensitivity and assurance. The audience reception matched any I’ve heard in Roy Thompson Hall. I attended all the Concertgebouw Orchestra concerts and none of them received standing ovations as lengthy or filled with such palpable appreciation, as this one.

This year Toronto NCF audiences were blessed with music of rare quality and soloists of the first water.  I could not, nor would I, attempt to choose between them. Let’s hope T.S.O. management can entice curators and soloists of similar expertise and quality to grace Toronto for future New Creations Festivals.

The question arises, why are such dramatic experiences relegated to three concerts in mid-winter? And why, given Oundjian’s violin heritage, are the T.S.O strings in such dismal shape? One wag seated near me opined, “Most of the violinists appear to be women and they play like exhausted housewives”. I hope they are not, but somebody needs to get them excited about something and that’s the conductor’s job.

As I blissfully made my way towards the exit, someone nearby said, “They’re having an after concert talk”. Sure enough the cast and conductor had returned and were seated in a semi-circle mid stage. I sped up my retreat and had almost reached the exit when I heard Oundjian say to Benjamin, “That was fabulous. George, how did you do that?”. OMG.

Notes:

Mr. Oundjian was born in Toronto of Armenian and English parents. He studied in England and before he began conducting full time, was for fourteen years principal violinist of the Tokyo string Quartet. He’s a good talker with a pleasing and uncondescending haut British accent still beloved of many Toronto art patrons.  Now, if he’d just learn to stop talking. A request rumoured to be heard among Toronto Symphony players.

Barbara Hannigan studied vocal singing with Mary Morrison as an undergraduate at the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto. During that period she performed with Nexus, singing ballads and sentimental songs from the early 20th-century. She studied in London, England and then moved to Amsterdam where she lives today. Though her “signature” piece is György Ligeti’s Mysterie of the Macabre, arranged by Elgar Howarth in 1979 from Ligeti’s Opera le Grand Macabre, written from 1974-97, she has always been devoted to contemporary music and has established herself in the forefront of 21st-century music performers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Barbara Hannigan redux

Barbara Hannigan predicts that conducting will eventually take up half of her work schedule. 

In fact, barring the need for surgical removal of an appendix, the hands and arms can be an even bigger problem, since they are inescapably visible. Aspiring vocalists may take years to learn to use their hands expressively or, alternatively, to keep them out of mind, if not out of sight.

This sort of career realignment is rare among singers. Ms. Hannigan cites the parallel example of the French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, who conducts and often sings at the same time.

The tenor and baritone Plácido Domingo is the best-known example of a classical vocalist who conducts regularly, though typically in the opera pit, where he is not singing at the same time.

But why not do both on the concert stage? Ms. Hannigan sees no reason not to, arguing that singers actually have an advantage over instrumentalist-conductors who play along with an orchestra: precisely that availability of hands and arms, otherwise idle, to lead the band.

“You sing like a conductor,” colleagues used to tell Ms. Hannigan of her musical personality and stage manner, she said in an interview on Sunday. And you can see some of that when she conducts while singing.

In three splendidly delivered Mozart arias here, her beating of time and cues to players often seemed mere amplifications of expressive gestures she might have made anyway. Since much (most?) of a conductor’s job takes place in rehearsal, she was able to leave a lot of the last-minute coordination and balancing of parts to the concertmaster.

Colleagues have also told Ms. Hannigan that her arm movements are particularly expressive, she said, and this, too, was borne out in her conducting of purely instrumental works: Rossini’s “Scala di Seta” Overture, Ligeti’s “Concerto Romanesc” and Fauré’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Her arms seemed fluid, elbowless entities, shoulder to wrist, evoking curvilinear waves of sound, and she did not use a baton.

This is one reason that Ms. Hannigan, unlike many other female conductors, chooses not to shroud her arms, or her femininity as a whole, in, say, a dark suit. She wore one for her conducting debut, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2010, and that was the last time.

“I thought, ‘I never wear a suit to sing,’ ” she said. “ ‘Never, ever. That isn’t my uniform.’ ”

She decided that from then on, she would wear “something that suited the music, suited the program,” she said.

For her concert on Saturday, she wore a glittery knee-length sheath until the grand finale, Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre,” a series of high-flying arias drawn from the composer’s nonsensical opera “Le Grand Macabre.” Ms. Hannigan, a specialist in modern and contemporary music who recently won great acclaim in productions of Berg’s “Lulu” and George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin,” has made this work — which she has sung often — her calling card.

She says she now sings it only when conducted by the English maestro Simon Rattle, a frequent and favorite collaborator, or — more often — herself. She performs it in vampy black leather, high-heeled platform boots and a wig, and inevitably brings the house down, as she did on Saturday.

Mr. Rattle has mentored Ms. Hannigan and sent her to the wizardly Finnish maestro and pedagogue Jorma Panula, who, Mr. Rattle says, came out of retirement to guide her.

“We’ve only worked together for eight or nine years,” said Mr. Rattle, who is in town to work with students of the Lucerne Festival Academy, “but it quickly became apparent that she is one of the best musicians out there. When she brought up the notion of conducting, I was surprised but not staggered. It seemed a fairly normal thing to do.”

A latecomer to conducting, Ms. Hannigan now faces the challenge of building up an orchestral repertory while maintaining a busy singing career in Europe and expanding it in North America. But Ms. Hannigan, with musicality to burn, says she is in it for the long haul.

“Conducting is now 20 percent of my schedule,” she estimated. “Eventually it will be 50-50, and then I will only conduct.”

She looks to tackle bigger orchestral works, with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in the offing. (Ms. Hannigan will sing the soprano solo in the finale of that work in a performance here on Sept. 6, with Matthias Pintscher conducting the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra.)

She also looks to conduct opera, with Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” being a possible starting point.

For her and audiences alike, it promises to be quite a ride.

 

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Barbara Hannigan, Art and Virtuosity

Barbara Hannigan studied singing at the Music Faculty of the University of Toronto with Mary Morrison. She then moved to London, England for studies at the Guild Hall School. Her next big decision was to live in Amsterdam and her career took off.  A spectacular New Year’s Eve concert ended with Barbara resplendent in flowing white, standing high above thousands of revellers in Amsterdam’s city square, singing a melismatic accompaniment to a popular rock and roll song. Written especially for her extremely high tessatura, it was a tour de force that can be seen on YouTube.

Barbara has appeared more often with the Berliner Philharmoniker then any other soprano. Specializing in new music, she has premiered operas and chamber music throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Barbara has also toured with chamber ensembles and has become involved as an artistic director of festivals.

Her recent portrayal of Alban Berg’s Lulu caused a sensation in Europe. In the first act, Barbara, as Lulu, lay spread eagle in bright blue panties while a man, his cheek resting on a bare inner thigh, gazes at her crotch and strokes her clitoris. Later in scene 3, Barbara in a tutu dances on pointe while singing. Ballerinas are traditionally employed in this scene, but Barbara wanted to dance as Lulu, as a dancer in the opera would have done. Another tour de force.

As a student, Barbara began singing sentimental songs from the early 20th c. on Nexus concerts. I also had the pleasure of conducting her when she performed Oliver Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh in Toronto.

Encouraged by Simon Rattle, she  began conducting as well as singing her concerts. Below I have attached a partial review of the recent Lucerne Festival by James R. Oestreich, from 17 August New York Times.

A late-night concert on Saturday proved a tour de force for the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who is taking up a second career as a conductor. Singing maestros are a rarity. The tenor Plácido Domingo conducts some, as did the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau late in his career, both typically sticking to either conducting or singing.

But Ms. Hannigan is intent on combining the two, as she did here with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which forms the basis of the festival orchestra, in the KKL. She conducted orchestral works by Rossini, Fauré and Ligeti fluidly and more than capably. She sang three Mozart arias beautifully, facing the audience and using slightly exaggerated expressive gestures to cue the players, but she also knew when to leave well enough alone or to the concertmaster.

She inevitably made her biggest splash with her calling card, “Mysteries of the Macabre,” three arias from Ligeti’s zany opera “Le Grand Macabre,” sung in kinky black leather or a semblance thereof. (New Yorkers may recall Ms. Hannigan’s brilliant performance in the opera with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic in 2010.) Here, in character (the head of the secret police), Ms. Hannigan’s conductorial gestures became more assertive and aggressive.

Barbara Hannigan in costume backstage with conductor Reinbert de   Leeuw after a performance of Ligett's "Mysteries of the Macabre" in Lincoln Center, New York.

Barbara Hannigan in costume backstage with conductor Reinbert de Leeuw after a performance of Ligett’s “Mysteries of the Macabre” in Lincoln Center, New York.

The conductor Simon Rattle, in town for work with the academy and Ms. Hannigan, made a brief cameo appearance, stalking down the aisle to take the stage and interrupt the performance with the immortal spoken line “What the hell is going on here?” It was all in good fun, as was Ms. Hannigan’s performance, though no one tried to answer that question.

How far will — or can — Ms. Hannigan take this new venture as she maintains a busy singing career? To opera? To Mahler symphonies?

That remains to be seen. But to the extent that sheer musicality and personality can do the trick, she seems to have it all, and you probably wouldn’t be wise to bet against her.

The Lucerne Festival runs through Sept. 14; http://www.lucernefestival.ch.

 

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