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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, 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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NYC, Part 2: Hannigan and Rattle

The purpose of our trip to New York prior to Christmas 2010 was to see Seiji Ozawa conduct once more and to finally hear the Saito Kinen Orchestra in person. It was also to hear Barbara Hannigan perform on a chamber concert with conductor Sir Simon Rattle. We purchased our tickets in August in anticipation of a holiday of good music, food and friends. In neither of these were we disappointed.

As an undergraduate studying voice with Mary Morrison at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, Barbara had sung with Nexus and continued to do so for a brief period after her graduation. She went to England and then moved to Amsterdam where her career began to grow and attract international attention. In some respects Barbara’s career reminds me of the great Cathy Berberian (1925-83) 1

Berberian was an artist with an eclectic repertoire and often performed music by Luciano Berio (1825-2003). Hannigan, who also has wide ranging tastes, has an affinity for the music of György Ligeti (1923-2006), and it is  Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre” (1991) which she performed in Zankel Hall with the ACJW Ensemble conducted by Simon Rattle. In 2006,  she sang Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” (1917) with the Berlin Philharmonic  on one days notice and since then has appeared with them seven times. Just last year, she sang the Nightingale in Stravinsky’s “Le Rossignole” (1914) with the same orchestra, Pierre Boulez conducting. Though Barbara has concentrated primarily on contemporary music, I’ve heard she’s also been engaged by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto to sing Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” K.527.(1787)

Barbara’s vocal range is wide, but once told me she’s happiest when all the notes are above the treble clef. I’ve never heard anyone sing notes as high as those in “Mysteries of the Macabre” and in fact, never thought them possible, at least not expressively and in tune. And the vocal virtuosity and acting skill  necessary to bring this work off is something Barbara  achieves with deceptive ease.

Zankel Hall, tucked three floors under the main stage of Carnegie Hall, is a comfortable space for chamber music, Not too large, not too small.  The program featured Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre” (1991) and his Violin Concerto (1989-93) performed by the German violinist Christian Tetszlaff (b.1961).  The program opens with music by Jean Phiippe Rameau, the Suite “Les Boreades”.  The work is in seven movements and the fourth movement, “Rondeau” opens with a drum roll. When I heard it, the drum roll, the question immediately sprang to mind, “Do conductors hear percussion?”  This drum was simply a tenor drum tensioned too high for the music, but the worst part were the plastic heads which were not properly tuned, thus producing ‘false’ overtones’ and a tinny sound.  I know that as a percussionist I might be  finicky, but come on. The sound was so ridiculously out of place I felt like screaming. Had the orchestra  played 100 notes out of tune, the effect would not have been worse. Otherwise the work was  beautifully played.

I was not as enthusiastic about the Ligeti Violin Concerto as was Sir Simon,2 and though I’d heard his name, I had never heard Tetszlaff perform live or on recordings.  I enjoyed his playing very much particularly  during the lovely violin solo in Richard Strauss ‘ (1864-1949) “Metamorphosen” at concert’s end.

“Mysteries of the Macabre” was next. The first time I encountered Ligeti was in 1972 when I played the percussion part to “Nouvelle Aventures” which was very definitely an adventure for me. Today, the only thing I remember about the performance is tearing butcher’s paper and throwing an entire set of cheap dishes into a large wooden box, the bottom of which  had been lined with metal stage weights. Serendipitously, the Soprano soloist was Mary Morrison.3 It was great fun and whenever I think of Ligeti, this concert comes to mind.

For all the responsibilities demanded by her role Barbara certainly has fun. She makes her entrance in a jet black wig, black leather trench coat and laced knee-high black boots. Midway through the performance she “disrobes”  revealing black mesh stockings and a 1920s Berlin Marlena Dietrich, Kurt Weill femme fatale top that only could be displayed by a woman with Barbara’s panache.

As the drama intensifies, Barbara pushes Sir Rattle  aside and begins conducting. He retaliates by pushing her away with his foot and regains control of the orchestra. At one point Rattle, unhinged by Barbara’s vocal antics, loses his cool and runs into the orchestra yelling something about Justin Bieber and orchestral decorum, before returning to his conductoral duties. The entire work which lasts only about 10 minutes is a tour-de-force for all the performers. The audience, many of whom were Juilliard students who had come to hear their friends in the ACJW Ensemble got right into the mood, and applauded enthusiastically. Barbara took four or five elongated bows necessitated by her outfit and swept off stage to lingering applause. 4

HANNIGAN and RATTLE rehearsing with the ACJW ENSEMBLE.

HANNIGAN and RATTLE rehearsing with the ACJW ENSEMBLE.

2006-BARBARA HANNIGAN in her MYSTERIES of the MACABRE OUTFIT with conductor REINBERT de LEEUW.

2006-BARBARA HANNIGAN in her MYSTERIES of the MACABRE OUTFIT with conductor REINBERT de LEEUW.

A goodly amount of time was needed to clear the air and stage for Strauss’ “Metamorphosen: A Study for 23 Strings”, (1945).5 Paul Sacher, the eminent Swiss conductor  and patron of contemporary music, commissioned Strauss to write the work for 23 solo strings and premiered it in January 1946 with his Zurich Collegium Musicum.  Metamorphosen was written towards the end of the Second World War as a lament for the destruction of Germany, particularly for the bombing of the Munich Opera House and the Goethehaus, which Strauss called “the world’s most holy shrine”. The violin solo, played by Tetszlaff with exquisite introspection and lack of affectation, rivals any of Strauss’s melodic output . Strauss’ sense of sadness is later underscored by a brief quote from the beginning of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

There was plenty of room for thought between Ligeti, Rameau and Strauss and the quality and scope of performances remained with us as we walked slowly across the street to the Redeye Grill where a lite repast gave us time to absorb the evening’s music.

The works of Symbolist author Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949) are not popular today, but the painters and musicians of the European fin de siècle admired his depiction of humanity in symbolic rather than realistic terms. Debussy, after struggling for years to find a story suitable for a stage  work, found Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande met the requirements of his dramatic and musical ideas.

And it was this opera that Rattle had chosen to make his Metropolitan Opera debut. The story is dark, the opera is long and the music, so different from anything in the Verismo repertoire, have combined to make “Pelléas et Mélisande” a favorite with aficionados, but not with the general public. Therefore, on the afternoon of Rattle’s second performance, my wife and I had no problem purchasing wonderful seats, center balcony.

Rattle snuck unnoticed into the pit and sat quietly beside the podium as the rest of the orchestra entered the pit and tuned. His discretion allowed him to begin the opera without any applause from the audience. And thus Debussy began to cast his spell. The first two acts went by as in a dream and I think I took my first breath after I realized there was going to be a pause.

We had never before heard an opera in the Met. The Met is huge, almost 4000 seats, but retains a certain intimacy and its’ open pit which extends beyond the stage reminds me of the new opera house in Toronto. The sound is fine, and the playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is as good as almost any symphony orchestra in the world. The pianissimos, and there were many, were softer, more controlled and in tune than any I’ve ever heard. At one point I found myself being pulled forward towards the pit by a remarkable diminuendo that seemed unending.

“Pelléas et Mélisande” is set in a castle , a forest or grotto and the blue gray scenery reminded me of the colors in chalk drawings of Renaissance artists. Their sombre, brooding tones fluctuated occasionally from dark to darker.  The set would periodically rotate, very slowly, allowing singers to move through a doorway into another room, a  garden or forest without interrupting the spell.

As the fifth act came to a close, a single chime note began to peal, its dissonance underscoring the tragedies that had taken place.  By themselves, these last few minutes rival the most poignant, melancholy music ever written. During cast bows, the Met orchestra players joined the  audience to enthusiastically demonstrate their appreciation for Rattle’s sensitive direction.

Footnotes:

1.From 1950 to 1964 Berberian was married to Luciano Berio, whom she met when they were students at the Milan Conservatory. They had one daughter, Christina Luisa, born in 1953. Berberian became Berio’s muse both during and after their marriage. He deconstructed her voice in Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958) and wrote his Circles (1960), Folk Songs (1964), Sequenza III for woman’s voice (1965), and Recital I (for Cathy) (1972) for her.

2.  The day of the concert I heard a televised interview with Simon Rattle during which he made a very intelligent and impassioned plea for the necessity of performing contemporary music. He referred to the the Ligeti Violin Concerto as being comparable with the music of Johanne Sebastian Bach.

3. Mary Morrison is a revered vocal teacher and mentor. Her students perform on the world’s stages and when in Toronto, often stay with her in her hone. Mary’s career as a performer, and teacher as well as  her famous ebullience, was rewarded by the Canadian government when it made her a member of the Order of Canada.

4. “.  .  .  amid-all this Ms. Hannigan’s pinpoint vocalizations and fluid acting conveyed Ligeti’s parody of a secret–police chief with scalpel-edge sharpness”. The  New  York Times, December 2010.

Two reviews of the 2006 Alice Tulley Hall performance:

.”To call Barbara Hannigan a soprano is like calling Robin Williams a public speaker; the term doesn’t begin to cover her fearless verve or elasticity … the 8 minute theatrical tour de-force left her spent and the audience roaring. Who said the avant garde can’t be fun?” New York Newsday, January 2006.

“Mysteries of the Macabre”  was performed here by the fearless soprano Barbara Hannigan. Wearing fishnet tights,spiked heels and a leather trench coat, Ms. Hannigan was a demonic presence. But even scarier was her uncanny ability to toss off the hysterical coloratura flights and nonsensical words .  .  .  Ms. Hannigan, Conductor de Leeuw and the players were brought back for five bows by the audience”. The New York Times January, 2006.

For examples of Barbara Hannigan’s artistry, see YouTube videos , particularly those of 2010 and 11 New Years celebrations from Amsterdam.

5. The performance of “Metamorphosen” reminded me of the day I first visited the home of composer Bruce Mather.  His wife Pierrette served a splendid lunch and Bruce, a member of the  exclusive  Burgundian wine fraternity, Chevaliers du Tastevin which owns the property and chateau that produces the great Clos du Vougeot, selected the wines. Fine wines. After lunch Bruce played a recording of Strauss’ choral work “Deutsche Motetet”.  As I fell under its spell, I fell asleep, prone on his living room sofa and remember waking up in Halifax. My excuse is simple. I had never drunk wines of any kind, let alone great wines, from  Burgundy. The food, wine and music were too rich. I’ve since learned to tolerate the combination.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2011 in Articles, Contemporary Music

 

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