Last night at Roy Thomson Hall Barbara Hannigan made her North American conducting debut with the TSO. And, of course, she sang too. She kicked off with Luigi Nono’s Djamila Boupacha for solo voice. It’s a short but haunting piece inspired by a woman activist from the Algerian War. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a solo, unaccompanied, voice in that hall and the effect is eerie. It’s also a hell of a sing and to navigate it with utter precision is quite some feat. As the last note died away (precisely on pitch) the violins came in with the opening Haydn’s Symphony no. 49 “La Passione”. It starts off with an Adagio that’s curiously similar in mood to the Nono piece and Hannigan was conducting without score or baton. In fact it was more like an interpretive dance than conventional conducting. She has amazing arms and hands; the arms and hands of a ballerina in fact and as she summoned the strings to a sort of shimmering sound I couldn’t help but reminded of Swan Lake. Corny perhaps but very real and quite disturbing. And the orchestra, quite a small subset of the TSO, responded. This was four movements of really lovely, chamber music like playing.
Then, after a stage reset and lots of toing and froing she conducted György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc. This was done conventionally with podium and baton and it’s a really lovely piece. For Ligeti, it’s surprisingly tuneful, though not without a few surprises thrown in. The slow movement also provides some rather beautiful solos for various woodwinds and the last movement has some seriously virtuoso solo work for violin played brilliantly here by Concert Master Jonathan Crow. My sense of Hannigan’s conducting in “conventional conductor” mode is that she knows exactly what she wants and has a very clear technique for communicating it. In contrast to “interpretive dance” mode it’s quite spare. All in all a very enjoyable first half.
After the interval Barbara sang and conducted Mozart’s concert aria Bella mia flamma… Resta, o cara. It’s full of extreme emotions and vocal fireworks and I’m not convinced that singing and conducting it is a great idea. The conducting seemed to make breathing more difficult and shaping the orchestra’s playing seemed to interfere with shaping the vocal line. The end result was interesting to watch but somehow not terribly Mozartian.
To conclude, we were back to the big orchestra, podium and baton for Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. It’s a WW2 piece with lots of martial brass and even contrabassoon. Two highly colourful and energetic movements (mercifully not as loud as I thought they were going to be) sandwich a more meditative slow movement, apparently originally conceived as part of a film score for The Song of Bernadette. Again, one got the impression that the orchestra was enjoying itself and played appropriately exuberantly.
One would have to travel far and wide to find another concert quite like this. Barbara Hannigan is an extraordinary, perhaps unique, talent who needs to be seen as well as heard. Let’s hope that she joins the band of until recently neglected Canadians singing on the COC stage in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, there’s one more chance to see her in this programme tonight at 8pm.
Photo credits: Malcolm Cook