La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Soprano Barbara Hannigan scintillating in North American Conducting Debut

Soprano Barbara Hannigan Scintillating in North American Conducting Debut

Joseph So

Nono: Djamila Boupacha for solo voice
Haydn: Symphony No. 49 in F Minor
Ligeti: Concert Romanesc
Mozart: Bella mia fiamma...Resta, o cara, K 528
Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements

Barbara Hannigan, soprano/conductor
Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Roy Thomson Hall, October 7th 2015

Barbara Hannigan and Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

One of the most talented of Canadian classical artists, soprano Barbara Hannigan has wowed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic in repertoires from Baroque to 21st Century. A specialist in contemporary music, she has served as the 'muse' for many composers who created works specifically for her.  Last March, she brought one of her signature pieces, Benjamin's Written On Skin to the New Creations Festival of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  Even though it was performed in concert with minimal staging, the musical and dramatic qualities were so powerful one couldn't help being swept away.

Now a few months later, Hannigan is making a welcome return to the TSO, in a program designed to showcase the multi-talented singer, as soprano soloist and conductor. I attended the opening performance last evening and it was indeed a marvelous demonstration of her versatility.  She began with a unaccompanied piece by Nono, showing off her purity (and beauty) of tone as well as accuracy of pitch, in a very challenging modern piece that most singers would find difficult to learn. But Hannigan tossed it off with aplomb, testament to her special affinity to this repertoire. Then it was followed by an energetic rendition of the Haydn symphony, leading the orchestra with vigour and a lightness of touch.  This was followed by Gyorgy Ligeti's Concert Romanesc, a piece unfamiliar to me. One of his early works, it's very lyrical and accessible, with lots of folk dance elements. The first two movements are actually very conservative musically and it grows gradually more challenging, but nothing like the later Ligeti, a very enjoyable work that I hope to hear again.

Barbara Hannigan conducts (Photo: Malcolm Cook)

The second half consisted of the well known Mozart concert aria, with the long recitative Bella mia fiamma leading to the aria. I feel this is the only point in the whole evening where the difficulty of doing double duty, as singer and conductor, is evident.  Mozart singing requires legato, sustained column of air with solid support, even emission of tone,etc etc.  His music may sound easy but it's deceptive.  Hannigan is a great singer and she sang it well, but the body movements required by the conducting duties made her singing less compelling than usual - the tone more fluttery, the sustained, even production of sound that's normally so easy for her sounded a bit more choppy.  It really makes me appreciate what a difficult task it is to sing and move energetically at the same time.

The concert ended with Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements. The angularity and seemingly erratic tempi changes made it a very challenging piece. Although not quite program music, Stravinsky admitted that he had WWII in mind when he was composing it. You can hear it in the abrupt rhythms that resembles the marching of soldiers in the last moment. Hannigan showed clearly she was up to the task and offered a rhythmically precise reading of this exacting score.  The TSO musicians responded well and played wonderfully. It was a wonderful end to the concert.  

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