Debussy: Syrinx for Solo Flute; Sibelius: Luonnotar for Soprano and Orchestra, Op. 70; Haydn: Symphony No. 86 in D Major; Berg: Symphonic Pieces from Lulu; Gershwin: Suite from Girl Crazy. Barbara Hannigan, soprano & conductor; Kelly Zimba, Flute; Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Roy Thomson Hall, 8 p.m., Feb. 13, 2019.
There are singers, and then there’s Barbara Hannigan.
Not only does the Canadian soprano from Nova Scotia have a beautiful voice, she has also spent her career championing new music. In recent years, Hannigan has taken on the role of the conductor. So far, she has participated in the world premiere — as a singer, conductor, or both — of over 85 works, likely an unrivalled record for a singer at this level.
Hannigan made her TSO debut as a soprano in 2000, and as a conductor in 2015. Her performances are guaranteed to be fresh and illuminating. Particularly memorable was her appearance in George Benjamin’s Written On Skin during TSO’s New Creations Festival two years ago. Now she is back as conductor and soprano with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in a program of Haydn, Sibelius, Strauss, Berg, and Gershwin, which she is taking to other major orchestras the likes of the Cleveland Orchestra, London Symphony, and Munich Philharmonic.
Given the atrocious winter weather, a smallish but highly enthusiastic audience gathered at Roy Thomson Hall. With the house lights dimmed very low and the soloist (TSO Principal Flute Kelly Zimba) placed in the front mezzanine and lit by a powerful spotlight, the concert opened with Debussy’s Syrinx for Solo Flute, exquisitely played by her. I was fortunate to have an excellent view of Zimba in action. I’m sure having her aloft was part of the plan to create an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere.
It was a perfect lead-in to Luonnotar for Soprano and Orchestra, incidentally both composed in 1913. The Sibelius is about a female nature-spirit, perfectly embodied in the pure sounds coming from Hannigan. This is a very challenging piece for the soprano, given its high tessitura (up to a C above the stave) yet also dipping to below middle C. Hannigan sang with silvery timbre ideal to the piece, but also with plenty of power in the climaxes.
It’s intriguing that to follow Debussy and Sibelius, Hannigan chose something composed nearly 130 years earlier, the very classical Haydn Symphony No. 86. The contrast was very striking — or jarring, depending on your taste. I find the adagio opening moments excessively stately and tentative. But once it got up to speed with the allegro section, everything took a buoyant turn. Hannigan gave a rhythmically precise and lively reading of this effervescent piece, drawing lovely sounds from the strings and the woodwinds.
The second half opened with Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from Lulu, for me the centrepiece of the evening. Berg died before the opera was finished. For years it was performed without Act Four. It wasn’t until 1979 that it was completed by Friedrich Cerha based on fragments left by the composer. It premiered that same year at the Paris Opera, with Canada’s own Teresa Stratas as a spectacular Lulu. We’re fortunate that it’s preserved for posterity, in audio and video formats.
Hannigan herself has sung this anti-heroine with distinction, and we got a taste of it in “Lied der Lulu.” Here she tells Dr. Schön “I am who I am; I can’t be anything else,” then proceeds to shoot him dead. The soprano’s sound had the requisite air of innocence that’s alternately beautiful and chilling. The opera ends with Lulu dying at the hands of Jack the Ripper. When Countess Gerschwitz, who’s in love with Lulu, discovers her, she sings a brief lament, the last lines in the opera. Here the soprano doubles as Gerschwitz, a mezzo role pitched much lower in the original score.
The TSO was at its thrilling best in this piece last evening. The sonorities flooding Roy Thomson Hall was awesome, whether it’s beautifully transparent and delicate pianos or wall-shaking fortissimos, like when Jack the Ripper does his thing on Lulu. To be sure, this piece isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but one is struck by its dramatic intensity, its power and sweep. I was pinned to my seat. Wouldn’t it be wonderful that now with opera-friendly Sir Andrew Davis back at the helm, that we would get a concert Lulu? Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
Lest Lulu would give the audience nightmares afterwards, Hannigan ended the concert on a much happier note, with four very familiar Gershwin pieces from Girl Crazy which she has recorded. Kudos to Bill Elliott for his orchestration that opens the group, in a style that would not have been out of place in Berg! The songs were seductively and deliciously sung by Hannigan, who was amplified, as is typical of musical theatre. How cathartic it was to hear these, so delightfully done, after the heaviness of Lulu.
And when the men in the orchestra became the chorus for “Embraceable You,” it left the audience cheering, including yours truly. I must say these gentlemen can carry a tune too! The Razzle-Dazzle, Broadway Big Band finish to “I Got Rhythm” was a fitting end to a great evening. The audience might have had to go out into the cold night, but I’m sure they went out with a warm heart.