When I posted that photo at lunch earlier today from last night’s Toronto Symphony concert, I joked that Barbara Hannigan is a precedent setter. Even so I understated what we saw & heard tonight.
With one exception, the five works we heard hang together as a carefully curated study touching in various ways upon the Ewig-weibliche, (or the “eternal feminine”), via Debussy, Sibelius, Berg, and Gershwin. In the middle the TSO presented a Haydn symphony that might have been that proverbial piece of bread to cleanse the palate, although my gosh it might have been the clearest cleanest Haydn I’d ever heard.
I hope the question of Barbara Hannigan’s ability as a conductor has by now been laid to rest. We ran the gamut of styles tonight, including several places where she didn’t just conduct ferociously difficult scores, but at times sang while conducting. Does anyone else do this? I can’t recall unless we’re talking about someone from a popular realm such as Cab Calloway (the first one who comes to mind). Alas classical criticism often is nothing more than a measurement of competence, how fast or how high they went as though singers & instrumentalists were in the Olympics. She must surely pass in that kind of mechanical critique, but please don’t expect me to make that kind of assessment.
I was too busy having fun, and that’s likely true of the orchestra as well.
And so there we were out on our Valentine’s Day date, watching and hearing works that in various ways seem relevant to the day. Debussy’s brief Syrinx began our evening, played by TSO principal flautist Kelly Zimba from a darkened auditorium seated among us in the mezzanine. The program note is longer than the piece, which is perhaps an indication that there was something more ambitious in mind than just a curtain raiser, pointing to the deeper meanings for the work. While Zimba played Debussy’s sinuous line Hannigan quietly entered in the dark through the orchestra. As the piece finished there was a brief pause before the downbeat to begin Sibelius’ Luonnotar, a work for soprano & orchestra.
As with the Debussy, we’re in the realm of a romantic music. This one tells a creation myth in a song that’s a kind of ur-folk music. This was the second of five pieces tonight that were 100% in Hannigan’s head, memorized not only for her role as conductor but also singing. At times her voice soared, sometimes sighing softly through the gentle accompaniments. She seemed to emerge organically out of the middle of the orchestra, a wonderful symbiosis. You’d never persuade me that the orchestra didn’t love playing with her, from the way they responded to her at the podium throughout the evening.
After the interval came two pieces from roughly the same historical period, that took our study of the female in new directions. Again, I’m mindful of Hannigan the curator, bringing two unexpected voices together. Berg & Gershwin? It’s nowhere near as odd as that might sound when you think about it. Hannigan’s is the prettiest sounding Berg (Suite from Lulu) I think I’ve ever heard. No really. The internal voices came through with great delicacy, the powerful brass statements dramatic for their contrast, emerging out of soft textures. While the ensemble is enormous, she resisted the temptation to be loud by default. And this Gershwin is of course an arrangement that plays up similarities, while pushing the most modern of his impulses. After hearing Hannigan singing Lulu & a little bit of Geschwitz, she sang three songs from Girl Crazy in a recent arrangement by Bill Elliott, designed to be heard alongside the Lulu Suite. For the Gershwin the voice was amplified, but the conducting was still very challenging, as Elliott sometimes threw in some odd time-signatures and dissonances. That’s the edgiest Gershwin I’ve ever heard: and it was thrilling. Hannigan’s conclusion brought the audience to a stirring ovation at the end.
And now I hope she makes a recording of this repertoire. I need to hear it again.
Tomorrow the TSO switch gears, as Casablanca moves into Roy Thomson Hall. The ongoing film with live orchestra series appears to be a huge success.