Whether singing or conducting, Barbara Hannigan is a figure you can’t take your eyes off.
Born in Nova Scotia, the European-based artist has collaborated with some of the most renowned names in classical music, particularly within the contemporary realm. Known and celebrated for her performances of 20th-century composers (Claude Vivier, Gyorgy Ligeti, Alban Berg) as much as modern directors (Katie Mitchell, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Claus Guth), Hannigan’s consistent commitment to creative exploration has made this Grammy and Juno winner a celebrated and sought-after figure within the opera world.
She made her conducting debut in 2014 in Amsterdam, and last season she led – and performed in – an ambitious concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that featured the work of Berg, Debussy, Gershwin, Sibelius and Haydn.
This week she has returned to Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto – this time with Finnish violinist and conductor John Storgards – to present works by five composers including Sibelius and Haydn again, donning the conductor’s hat in the first half of the program and as the soprano soloist in the second.
The duo’s first performance was Thursday evening and they conclude their two-night stop in Toronto on Saturday.
Thursday evening opened with Beethoven’s popular Egmont overture, with Hannigan emphasizing the work’s percussive elements and keeping a watchful control of dynamics. The calls between various woodwinds had a distinctly anthropomorphic feel in her ever-moving hands.
That sense of the characterful continued in Dutilleux’s Sur le même accord, with Hannigan highlighting the conversational energy between Storgards (as violinist) and the TSO. First presented in 2002, the one-movement work is based on a six-note chord (in reference to the title, which translates as “on only one chord”) and captures the tonal coloration and lyricism so central to the French composer’s creations.
In place of virtuosity, the focus was on pitch and instrumentation, allowing varied orchestral colours to be alternately concealed and revealed, like shifting, reflective pieces of glass, within the structural bounds of tempo and harmonic structure.
Hannigan, as expressive on the podium as on the opera stage, then gave lyrical pacing to Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 in D Major, and smartly drew out the melodic and percussive connections to Beethoven with a momentum in the second movement marked by swelling strings and jaunty woodwinds. The oboe writing in the third movement (performed by TSO principal Sarah Jeffrey) was given special emphasis, with Hannigan pointing up its distinctly dramatic vocal line.
One was reminded of this detail in the evening’s second half, when Hannigan gave a rich, character-driven vocal performance of Brett Dean’s And Once I Played Ophelia. The work is based on the 2017 opera Hamlet, written by Dean and Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn. Hannigan performed in its premiere at the prestigious Glyndebourne Festival in southern England. Arranged by string orchestra, the work uses Shakespearean text belonging to not only Ophelia but also Hamlet and Polonius.
Dean’s orchestration, with its undulating strings (sometimes reduced to a solo violin line, performed by concertmaster Jonathan Crow) and varied dynamism, unmistakably suggests watery depths, a literal and figurative reference to the manner of Ophelia’s expiration as well as the murky expectations of audiences in relation to tragic heroines.
The percussive quality of the soprano’s delivery perfectly complemented a text which is, by turns, playful, aggressive, earthy, and ethereal, qualities Hannigan telegraphed with mesmerizing authenticity.
With subtle references to Beethoven and Mahler, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52 featured clear dynamics and shifting textures, with clear delineations between sections that echoed Sibelius’s search for identity within the 1907 work.
Hannigan clearly embraces a multitude of identities. In a concert characterized by themes of creative and personal liberation, the soprano provided a strong, clear path to the future of not only possibilities within a symphony orchestra but within the realm of music as a whole.
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