This article appears in The WholeNote as part of our collaboration in the Emerging Arts Critics program.
On the night following a brutally silencing storm, Toronto welcomed the illustrious Barbara Hannigan to the stage at Roy Thomson Hall, in her role as singer and conductor. I am part confused, part curious, and wholly excited to witness a woman spin a conventionally “man’s” position on its head. In anticipation of the performance, my friend asks, “Do you think she sings and conducts at the same time?” I respond, “Surely not.”
I was wrong. Over the course of the evening, Hannigan sang and conducted with keen devotion. Her uncompromising precision and vocal tenacity were astonishing – and with what felt like great risk and immense passion, she executed the seemingly impossible with comfortable ease. The result was nothing short of magnificent.
The evening consisted of five works spanning different centuries, regions and styles. It began with Debussy’s Syrinx performed by TSO principal flutist Kelly Zimba, who played from the fourth ring under a meek spotlight. The decision to locate her away from the orchestra created a whimsical atmosphere, as the sound hovered above the audience, a sensuous cloud of longing.
Syrinx was originally composed for the play Psyché by Gabriel Mourey. In the play, the piece is performed by the god Pan, after foolishly killing his unrequited lover, Syrinx. The brief solo is ominous and laced with tragic irony. Zimba had a quiet presence as she dipped her knees alongside the crescendo of her breath into her flute. I became transfixed with her translation of music into movement – and when the light turned towards the orchestra revealing Hannigan at its centre, I was ready.
Sibelius’s Luonnotar was the perfect transition. The Finnish tone poem, written for orchestra and soprano in 1890, depicts the divine process of creation, and here we got to witness Hannigan as both conductor and soloist. The piece began with a sudden rush of violin, punctuated with delicate vocals, and finally, ethereal layers of harp and clarinet.
Hannigan was striking as a singer, cutting the air with her glassy soprano. As a conductor, often facing us rather than the orchestra, Hannigan’s movement rested in her shoulders. They moved forward and jolted back as if being tugged by an invisible string, successfully determining cadence and steering dynamics.
It became clear to me, by the exactitude with which the orchestra operated, that each gesture, from the curl of a lip to a furrow of a brow, produced sound. The timpani player hushed its vibration with his palm, as the harpist snapped her wrist back to let her instrument ring. Towards the haunting end of the poem, Hannigan delivered a fierce cry against the gentle softness of the flute. The orchestra then fell completely silent, crystallizing the air – a silence ruptured by thunderous applause.
The third performance was Haydn’s Symphony No. 86 in D major. The orchestra was noticeably smaller and this time, Hannigan held a baton. She was magnetic, tiptoeing with the introduction of the trumpets, and using both hands to summon the percussion. Symphony No.86 is joyful and bound by contradictions, beginning cautiously only to turn into suspense and later celebration. The second movement, Capriccio, introduces a main theme that repeats itself in various unexpected instances – it is a stunning interplay of grace and urgency, and I found myself nodding my head in accordance with the twisting melodies.
Perhaps the most ravishing piece of the evening was the symphonic suite from the opera Lulu by Alban Berg. Lulu tells the story of a tormented woman adored by men – and eventually murdered by, oddly enough, Jack the Ripper. It is shrieking with violence and intense desire. For Hannigan, Lulu is not only her signature role played to critical acclaim but also what inspired her Grammy Award-winning album, Crazy Girl Crazy. As an audience member, it was evident Hannigan was in her most comfortable element.
In Berg’s Lulu suite, a larger orchestra began by offering lush, full sound suggestive of subtle yearning. There is a simple divinity in the synchronized dip of violin bows. This atmosphere of pained longing soon turned to a rapid search with the introduction of percussion, specifically the mysterious notes of the vibraphone. By the second movement, the mood was transformed into a hurried urgency, as if attempting to thwart a predicted collision. All the while, Hannigan conducted with precision, collecting anger, fear and grief in her shoulder and wrist movements. It was in this arresting motion, during the third movement, that she began to sing.
Her song took possession of her body as she was transformed into a frantic Lulu. At this instance, she was moments away from killing her lover, Dr. Schön. Hannigan’s searing soprano was fierce, justifying Lulu’s right to survive against the violent plea of the violins. Hannigan commanded both orchestra and her voice with remarkable ease.
The final performance launched us into the present day. In a suite derived from Gershwin’s musical Girl Crazy, arranged by Hannigan and longtime collaborator Bill Elliott – themes exploring past love and present regret unfolded against a wonderfully catchy jazz melody. It was an apt finale, and a perfect continuation of Lulu’s anguish.
At one point, the musicians of the orchestra erupted in song, harmonizing with Hannigan and spontaneous laughter wrapped the auditorium. The result was spellbinding, effectively breaking the fourth wall between musician and listener, revealing that, much like Hannigan, orchestral musicians are multifaceted. In another instance of candid humour, the double bassists spun their instruments around to accent a chord. It is no surprise, then, that as they struck their final note and Hannigan stretched her arms in the air, we were instantly brought to our feet. Lasting applause ensued and welcomed multiple bows from Hannigan and the orchestra.
Throughout, Hannigan’s virtuosic sensibility shone brightly and her position as singer and conductor defied expectation. In a carefully curated evening of diverse works, we were left simply delighted. As I departed for the subway, I refrained from plugging my ears with headphones and instead enjoyed the perfect environment of sound remembered.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Barbara Hannigan Sings & Conducts” on February 13 and 14, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.
Brannavy Jeyasundaram is a writer and bharatanatyam dancer based in Richmond Hill. She has been dancing for over fifteen years and writing, at least privately, since she was eight. Her work exploring cultural identity and political histories has been published in HuffPost, The Dance Current, NOW Toronto and Tamil Guardian.