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Barbara Hannigan performs as part of the New Creations Festival in 2015. (Malcolm Cook)
Barbara Hannigan performs as part of the New Creations Festival in 2015. (Malcolm Cook)

Concert review

Hannigan’s dramatic soprano shines with TSO Add to ...

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Barbara Hannigan

At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Jan. 27

Barbara Hannigan’s love and understanding of the complex musical language of Henri Dutilleux shone through in her assured performance of his evocative work, Correspondances. Appearing for the third time in less than a year, Toronto audiences got to savour the unique musicianship of the Canadian soprano (last time, in October, she was conducting the band).

Correspondances is a fascinating piece, a meditation on the cosmos, as well as on the relationship of joy and evil in human life. It has at its heart two letters – one from Soviet novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn to musicians Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya, who harboured him when his persecution in the Soviet Union was at its height, and the second from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo.

An unlikely pairing, you might think, until you realize the texts of each collapse the difference between joy and horror, between love and despair. Hannigan was especially effective in the Van Gogh letter, which Dutilleux sets in an autumnal, string-based hue, despite the fact that the text edges toward the hysterical at times. Barbara Hannigan is an exceptionally dramatic performer, with a sharp, clear soprano voice that is equally dramatic, and if that voice didn’t always cut through the lush orchestration early in the work, it gained character and strength throughout, to shine with exceptional brilliance at the end.

Dutilleux’s Correspondances was paired with another French masterpiece shot through with fantasy and emotional extremes – Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The classical repertoire is a familiar one, with the same pieces repeated too often year after year, and that familiarity can breed more than a little complacence and ennui among classical listeners. What a shame that is when it comes to a work as radical, original, creative, crazy as a loon, and wonderful as the Symphonie fantastique. What I would give to hear it for the first time again! It has everything, from a unique structure, to hilarious and dramatic moments, to gorgeous melodies to weird orchestral effects – four tympanists banging away in the third movement, the string section tapping the wood of their bows on their strings in the fifth, and much more.

The Toronto Symphony is made up of just too many fine musicians not to make an impact with a work like this, and the whirling Witches’ Sabbath that closes the piece, and the March to the Scaffold that precedes it, were played with panache and brio, especially by the TSO brass section. But a successful performance of this way-more-challenging-than-you-think piece needs enormous attention to detail, a delicate balancing of timbre and instruments and a super-keen ear for fantasy and humour. Sometimes conductor Peter Oundjian and his colleagues provided those qualities in abundance; at other times, that attention to detail was unfortunately lacking. The Roy Thomson Hall audience loved the performance and gave it an enthusiastic ovation. However, if that crowd heard the TSO play it as one suspects they can, they’d still be there, cheering their heads off.

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